erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 1980s posts

Wednesday July 14, 2021

Movie Review: Ragtime (1981)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Do not read this review fast.
It is never right to read movie reviews fast.
— A.O. Scott Joplin

E.L. Doctorow’s “Ragtime”is one of my favorite novels, Milos Forman is one of my favorite directors (“Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Hair,” “Amadeus”), so it’s a shame Forman’s adaptation of Doctorow doesn’t quite work. It’s a tough ask. The novel is so sprawling in its use of fictional and historical characters, and so precise in its writerly voice, its ironic, class-conscious narrator skewering the age, that I don’t know how you’d get it all on screen. 

It’s mostly historical characters that get glossed over. There’s no J.P. Morgan or Henry Ford, let alone Emma Goldman, while the Great Houdini is relegated to newsreel footage. The storyline of Father (James Olson) accompanying Perry to the Pole is completely cut, which makes sense to me, since it seems superfluous. Evelyn Nesbit (Elizabeth McGovern) is expanded in terms of overall real estate but she’s reduced by becoming a shallow, comic figure. In the book she’s sadder and deeper. The best of her—the love she feels for Tateh’s daughter—is ignored for comic nude scenes and catty eye rolls. The fictional Tateh (Mandy Patinkin) is also reduced. The depths of his Old Testament despair, with his hair and beard turning white, gets truncated, as does riding the trolleys to the end of the line—and there’s nothing at all on the 1912 Lawrence textile strike—so selling the picture book on an early morning in Philadelphia isn’t this glorious moment of redemption and release. It’s just sorta nice.

I like that, early on, Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Howard E. Rollins Jr.) plays piano to accompany newsreel footage. It’s a good way to both introduce our most important character and include some historical figures. It’s also an anachronism. Newsreels weren’t a thing in 1906.

Handsome as fuck
The movie mostly reduces Doctorow’s myriad storylines into two. The first is the real-life murder of architect Stanford White (Norman Mailer) by Harry K. Thaw of Pittsburgh (Robert Joy), which was huge news at the time. Newspapers called it the Crime of the Century, to which Doctorow reminds us “…it was only 1906 and there were ninety-four years to go.”

The murder was over a woman, of course, Nesbit, a model/chorus girl/actress who had originally been wooed by the superrich White and wound up married to Thaw, the scion of a coal and railroad baron. Neither man is an angel. White was 30 years older than Nesbit, and he possibly drugged her for their first sexual encounter, but he’s generally regarded as a kind man. Thaw was a horror show. He whipped Nesbit for sexual pleasure. Doctorow describes him as having “the face of a ventriloquist’s dummy.”

The flashpoint in the movie is that White places a statue of Diana atop Madison Square Garden (1890-1925), which he designed, and rumors swirled that a naked Nesbit was the model. This is barely mentioned by Doctorow, and historically impossible, as that particular statue of Diana, by sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, was unveiled in 1893, when Nesbit was 9 years old. Nevertheless, in the film, Thaw demands its removal, White ignores him, and in June 1906, on the rooftop of Madison Square Garden, Thaw shoots White three times in the head. The scene is graphic. I flashed on the JFK assassination.

The second storyline, the main one, concerns the rise and fall of Coalhouse Walker, Jr.

Shortly after we’re introduced to the family—Father, Mother (Mary Steenburgen), Mother’s Younger Brother (Brad Dourif), and the boy (Max Nichols)—basically the narrator of the novel but a nonentity here—the family maid finds a Black baby crying in their garden in New Rochelle, NY. After the police are called in, we get the racism of the day. “These niggers drop babies like rabbits,” says one official, and in the background, you can tell, they lose Mother’s Younger Brother, who is lonely, moody, and fairly progressive. They lose Mother, too, who is simply kind. In the novel, Father is away on the Perry expedition so Mother is forced to make decisions on her own. Here, she takes control in front of him, which, given the times, I don’t buy—particularly since she decides they should keep the baby. When Sarah (Debbie Allen), the half-mad mother, is discovered nearby, the family takes her in as well. And eventually Coalhouse, the father, shows up.

When I first saw “Ragtime,” I assumed Howard E. Rollins Jr. was going to be a big star. He’s handsome as fuck, with large, expressive eyes and cheekbones you could cut glass on, and he embodies the rectitude and righteous anger of Doctorow’s character. Three years later he starred in Norman Jewison’s “A Soldier’s Story,” where I thought the same thing: star. Never happened. One assumes he encountered the racism of our day. Or maybe the homophobia of our day? A cocaine addiction didn’t help. I didn’t see him again until four years later when turned up as Virgil Tibbs in the TV version of “In the Heat of the Night,” opposite Carroll O’Connor. By then, he was no longer handsome as fuck. Eight years after that, he died of AIDS-related lymphoma, age 46. It was Denzel, the villain of “Soldiers Story,” who became the star.

I do think the movie lets off Coalhouse too easily for abandoning Sarah and the baby. “I wasn’t living any kind of life I could ask a woman to share with me,” he says. Right. So he drives her to such despair she abandons the baby in a garden? In the novel, she actually buries it. Their relationship is a bit odd, too. He’s smart, she’s not; she crumbles quickly, he never does. But joy flashes in his eyes when he’s with her so we don’t question it. He plays piano for the family and they don’t question it, either. I wish Coalhouse had called out the titles of the songs, as he does in the novel, followed by “… composed by the great Scott Joplin,” but Joplin gets no such namecheck here. The scene is still great: Coalhouse gently chastising the family by telling them the piano is in need of tuning; the look of fondness in his eyes as he plays and the look of amazement in theirs; how his music is taken over by the soundtrack, which wells as he ascends to the attic room to reconcile with Sarah.

The connection between our two storylines is Mother’s Younger Brother. He winds up the unlikely paramour of Evelyn Nesbit during Thaw’s trial, and the unlikelier sixth member of Coalhouse’s gang after the firehouse incident; after he tells the gang: “I can make bombs.”

I should mention a couple of the movie’s edits—one good, one bad. Here’s the bad. After the reconciliation, Coalhouse invites the family (including Mother’s Younger Brother) to his wedding the following weekend. Then we cut to Mother’s Younger Brother making an embarrassing, last-ditch effort to see Evelyn Nesbit in New York City, which seems to take place later in the week. Then we cut to the incident with Wille Conklin (Kenneth McMillan) and The Emerald Isle Volunteer Fire Company. Except that’s in New Rochelle, Coalhouse only visits once a week, and he’s obviously returning from visiting Sarah. So wouldn’t that have been his wedding day?

It’s a horrific incident. The firetrucks are horse-drawn, Coalhouse has a brand new Model T Ford with a custom PANTASOTE top, and the firefighters resent him and it. So they block his way. When he goes to get a police officer, they defecate in the front seat. When the police officer (Jeff Daniels) arrests him instead, and he spends the night in jail, they take the time to destroy the car. His search for satisfaction—from white bureaucrats to Black lawyers—leads nowhere. Then Sarah tries to help. Teddy Roosevelt’s vice-president, Charles Fairbanks, comes through town on a whistlestop campaign tour and she tries to speak to him on Coalhouse’s behalf. She’s beaten by cops. In her attic room, wounded, Coalhouse visits and they talk quietly of their wedding, then we hear church music and cut to a church service. As the camera pans down, we see it’s not Sarah’s wedding but her funeral. That’s the good edit.

How about a shout-out for the casting director? A lot of the minor characters here went on to great stuff. Coalhouse’s gang consists of Dorsey Wright, who played Hud in Forman’s “Hair”; Calvin Levels, who has only 32 credits but seems familiar to me (that “M*A*S*H” episode, maybe?); Frankie Faison, the future Commissioner Burrell of “The Wire”; and a baby-faced Samuel L. Jackson in one of his first feature films. Among the policemen in the film we get Jeff Daniels, John Ratzenburger/Cliff Claven, and Andreas Katsulas, who became the one-armed man in “The Fugitive.”

And, of course, James Cagney.

Top of the world
Cagney had unofficially retired from the movies in 1961, after a bad experience on Billy Wilder’s “One, Two, Three,” and he more or less stayed that way. He did some narration in lesser stuff (“The Ballad of Smokey the Bear,” “Arizona Bushwackers”), mostly as favors for friends, but that was it. In 1974, he was feted by the American Film Institute and published his memoir around the same time. He was done. So how did Forman talk him out of retirement?

He was a neighbor of the Cagneys, and one evening during dinner he was discussing Doctorow’s novel, which he’d optioned. “As he did,” John McCabe writes in his Cagney biography, “Jim, because of growing sciatica, was sitting with his head slightly lowered, listening, and whenever especially interested, he raised his leonine head and looked intently at the speaker. Forman saw him do this several times and said to himself, ‘My God, if I could get him interested in the film…’” Cagney’s wife, Willie, was interested—she thought it would be good for her husband’s health—so eventually he signed on to play Police Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo. It was huge news. A last hurrah for a Hollywood legend. 

“Fire.” “Sir?” “Fire.”

Is it much of a hurrah? Cagney was 81 at the time, and, along with the sciatica, suffered from diabetes and the aftereffects of several small strokes. He has trouble turning his head, some of his lines appear to be dubbed, and his sight is diminished—meaning his long-standing acting motto (“Look in the other actor’s camera eye and tell the truth”) doesn’t serve him well. Overweight, and with a handlebar moustache, I’m reminded less of the young, rat-a-tat Cagney, that firecracker of an actor, than Burl Ives’ snowman in the Rankin-Bass “Rudolph” special. There's something swaddled about him. 

It was still a good idea. Not only had Cagney lived through the ragtime period, he kept returning to it in film. “The Public Enemy” began in 1909, the brunt of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” takes place in the aughts, while two of his lesser-known films—“The Strawberry Blonde” and “Johnny Come Lately”—were set in this exact year: 1906. Put it this way: Cagney read “Ragtime” less for its acclaim than because he’d actually known Evelyn Nesbit. That blows my mind.

Did they expand the role for him? Rhinelander Waldo wasn’t much of a character in the book—he’s just mentioned in passing after Coalhouse’s gang takes over the J.P. Morgan Library in Manhattan. This is after they attack the Emerald Isle Volunteer Fire Company to get Conklin. He’s not there, so he becomes part of the demand: Coalhouse’s Model T returned to him in its original condition, and the life of Conklin for the life of his Sarah. They attack other firehouses, too. Why the J.P. Morgan Library? In the novel it’s a bit of a mix-up. They plan is to hold Morgan, the richest man in the world, hostage in order to get Conklin, but they go to the wrong place—his library rather than his residence—and anyway Morgan was abroad; so instead they just hold his priceless artifacts hostage. The hostage negotiator in the novel is New York D.A. Charles S. Whitman, who has presidential ambitions and decides “he had a few minutes to take care of this matter of the mad coon.” Things don’t go well. 

Neither here. Conklin is found, and brought before Waldo, red-faced and sweaty, and Waldo toys with him a bit. Other negotiators are brought in: Booker T. Washington (Moses Gunn), and Father, fresh from Atlantic City, where the family, with Coalhouse’s baby, is recovering from the press attention. Eventually Coalhouse sees there’s no out for him, so he switches demands. Forget Conklin. He wants the Model T and the life of his men. Let them go free. Waldo agrees, since he figures it won’t be hard to track five Black men in a marked Model T. He doesn’t know about Mother’s Younger Brother (now adeptly called Younger Brother by Doctorow), who, several blocks away, takes the wheel, and they give the cops the slip. It’s the best bit that’s not in the novel.

Coalhouse’s surrender to the cops resonates even more today than when it was made. Leaving the Morgan Library, unarmed, with hands raised, he’s cut down—like Charles Kinsey, Jonathan Price, Terence Crutcher, countless others. In the novel, it’s a volley of shots, a regular shooting gallery a la “Bonnie and Clyde.” Here it’s just one shot from one cop—at the command of Rhinelander Waldo. That resonates in a different way. Cagney, the original gangster shot dead in the streets in “Public Enemy” and “The Roaring Twenties,” orders the same for the century’s first black revolutionary. After the shot rings out, Coalhouse pauses, then keeps walking forward, hands still raised. For a second you wonder if he’d been hit. Then he crumples on the stairs like Cagney did in “Roaring Twenties.” He’d just been too stubborn to fall. But there’s no one there to say, as Gladys George did for Cagney, “He used to be a big shot.” Instead, we get a few notes of ragtime, played plaintively on the piano by Randy Newman.

Telling the cop “Fire” is the last line James Cagney will ever say in a feature film. 

Like something closer to America
So the movie has moments but it’s not on the same level as the novel. I don’t think any cinematic depiction will ever be on the same level as the novel since you can’t capture that authorial voice on screen. The best attempt would be a miniseries. That might allow for the novel’s many interweaving storylines. I could see HBO having a go someday.

I knew about Cagney, of course, but I was surprised to see his Irish mafia pal Pat O’Brien playing Harry K. Thaw’s lead attorney. Like Cagney, it was his final film role. O’Brien and Cagney made eight movies together between 1934 and 1940, so it’s a shame they don’t get any scenes together. Cagney does have a scene with Norman Mailer’s Stanford White. At least White introduces the police commissioner to Harry K. Thaw, but it’s separate shots so one assumes they were filmed on separate days. Even so, Norman Mailer introducing James Cagney is a true colliding of my worlds. I was tickled just seeing it.

Beyond Rollins and McGovern, who were both nominated for supporting Oscars, there are standouts in smaller roles. I like Moses Gunn’s authority as Booker T. Washington, Ted Ross saying “I can’t taste it” as the Black lawyer, the privileged insanity of Robert Joy’s Harry K. Thaw, and the great, huffing, without-vanity performance of McMillan. Olson as Father is underrated: He brings a quiet humanity to the role. And it’s always a pleasure to see Brad Dourif. He had a moment when movies mattered.

Forman leaves a lot of loose ends that Doctorow ties up. In the novel, after their escape, Younger Brother travels south and becomes a revolutionary with Zapata’s army, where he’s considered brilliant but reckless. He dies within a year. During the Great War, Father is selling the armaments Younger Brother devised to Great Britain, but he’s aboard the Lusitania when it’s torpedoed by the Germans. Widowed, Mother marries Tateh, who has gone from picture-book making to film making. That’s what he’s doing in Atlantic City when he first meets the family. Doctorow has them move to Southern California, nascent Hollywood, where one day, watching Mother’s gentile son and Coalhouse’s Black son and his Jewish daughter playing together, he comes up with the idea for the “Our Gang” comedies. That’s cute but ... a bit overdone? I like that Forman and screenwriter Michael Weller let us connect the dots. Father doesn’t die, Mother simply leaves him for Tateh; and as Father watches from behind a lace curtain, we see the new family drive off—Jewish, gentile, Black. It feels like something closer to America.

Posted at 10:15 AM on Wednesday July 14, 2021 in category Movie Reviews - 1980s   |   Permalink  

Wednesday June 09, 2021

Movie Review: Midnight Run (1988)

Robert De Niro plays Jack Walsh, a bounty-hunter who is offered $100,000 by his bail bondsman (Joe Pantoliano) to bring in Jonathan Mardukas (Charles Grodin). Unfortunately Mardukas embezzled $15 million from noted wiseguy Jimmy Serano (Dennis Farina) and is in hiding. Walsh has his own past with Serano, which we learn by and by, but he tracks down Mardukas fairly quickly. The trouble is transporting him from New York to Los Angeles. Mardukas refuses to fly--has a phobia--and after an incident the two board a train. Good thing, too: since the bondsman's phone has been tapped (by the FBI) and his assistant is a fink (for the mob), both the FBI and the mob were waiting for them at LAX. Meanwhile, the bondsman, worried because he hasn't heard from Walsh, sends another bounty hunter after them--John Ashton as the hilariously dimwitted Marvin Dorfler.

Midnight Run (1988)

Written by:
George Gallo

Directed by:
Martin Brest

Starring:
Robert De Niro
Charles Grodin
Yaphet Kotto
John Ashton
Dennis Farina
Joe Pantoliano

Quote:
“Here comes two words for you: shut the fuck up.”

Misadventures multiply. Mardukas keeps initiating dialogue, hoping to get to know Walsh. Walsh, of course, wants part of no conversation, and De Niro and Grodin play off each other hilariously here. One of my favorite moments is Walsh on the phone threatening the bail bondsman. “If I find out you sent (Dorfler) after me I'm going to break Mardukas' neck and throw him in a swamp where no one will ever find him!” Mardukas, next to him, gives a start, but Walsh shakes his head slightly, scrunching his nose. Beautiful.

There's great support, not only from Ashton but Yaphet Kotto as FBI agent Alonzo Mosely, whose badge Walsh has swiped. Kotto plays it straight, as a competent officer who is repeatedly made to look the fool by Walsh. His “slow burn” is one of the best in recent years.

Grodin is the real find: the way he balances the inner-strength of his character with his almost womanly predicament--not to mention the lackadaisical, humming way he pesters Walsh. De Niro is De Niro and gives us--even in a comedy!--another uncomfortable, seat-shifting scene. Penniless and on the lam in Chicago, Walsh is forced to revisit his ex-wife whom he hasn't seen in nine years. While they argue, his daughter shows up, looking thin and vulnerable, very much an adolescent girl. The mother goes to get money and car keys and Walsh and the girl are left to fend for themselves. “So what grade are you in now?” he asks. “Eighth grade,” she tells him. “The eighth grade, really,” he says, nodding, before lapsing into a most uncomfortable silence--interminable for all that is left unsaid.

-- March 26, 1999

Posted at 08:35 AM on Wednesday June 09, 2021 in category Movie Reviews - 1980s   |   Permalink  

Friday February 01, 2019

Movie Review: Flash Gordon (1980)

WARNING: SPOILERS

There is no question mark in the history of movies more unnecessary than the one that pops up before the end credits to Dino De Laurentiis’ 1980 flop, “Flash Gordon.” You know the bit. The story is done, the villain vanquished, and “The End” appears on the screen. But wait, who’s that picking up the villain’s ring? And laughing like the villain? And that’s when the question mark is added:

The End?

No, honey, this is really the end. There won’t be any sequels to this fucking thing.

There is also probably no DVD bonus feature in the history of DVD bonus features more mislabeled than the interview here with screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. Someone in PR called it “Writing a Classic” and for a moment that got me excited. Wait, is Semple really going to argue that “Flash Gordon” is a classic? I gotta hear this!

Yeah, no. Semple is defensive throughout:

I don’t remember having a single meeting with anybody except Dino. In my opinion, it could’ve used some criticism. There’s no question the script would’ve been better. ... Even though it may sound a dream, “Go write it and we’ll shoot it” is not a terribly good idea.

Review of Flash Gordon 1980Semple spoke no Italian and De Laurentiis spoke little English, so a woman who worked for DDL translated the script for him. Except, says Semple, her English wasn’t great. She once showed up at his house, saw his cat, said “Nice dog.”

It gets better. During filming, De Laurentiis told Semple to visit Penthouse magazine publisher Bob Guccione for ideas. He did. He saw him in his London mansion with a couple of Penthouse pets. “It was idiotic and insane,” says Semple, “the idea of going to Bob Guccione for ideas.”

The coup de grace: “Obviously,” Semple says, “people at Universal read the script, and nobody said it was awful.” 

Nobody said it was awful. PR-speak for: “Writing a classic.”

‘We couldn’t figure it out’
Going in, I assumed watching this on the heels of watching the original 1936 version with Buster Crabbe would make it better—the way that, say, watching the 1966 “Batman” on the heels of suffering through the 1949 “Batman & Robin” serial made it way, way funnier. Nope. Doesn’t help at all. The ’36 version actually comes off good in comparison.

I assumed this, by the way, without even knowing that Semple, who wrote “Batman ’66,” also wrote this. So what happened? Was his sense of humor gone? Did it get lost in translation? 

“Star Wars” happened.

Originally, George Lucas wanted to remake “Flash Gordon” but he couldn’t secure the rights; so he made “Star Wars” instead. Once everyone saw how much money he made, they all scrambled to put together his original idea. Semple again:

I remember Dino said one day, “We run ‘Star Wars.’” He got a copy of it. “We see why everybody go see this movie.” But we couldn’t figure it out. “Star Wars” has a certain amount of ... I won’t say realism, but, I mean, it was treated as if it was really happening. And “Flash Gordon,” in my opinion, never appears as if it actually was really taking place anywhere. I mean, Mongo was more than mythical. I mean, Mongo is straight out of an Italian comic book.

My favorite line in the above? We couldn’t figure it out. Semple, Jr., 57, and De Laurentiis, 61, couldn’t figure out why a bunch of teenage boys like me were going to see “Star Wars” again and again. “Flash Gordon,” born of greed and jealousy, was created by old men attempting to emulate something none of them understood. 

“Star Wars” had a blonde lead? Here's one that‘s more handsome. 

“Star Wars” included a respected/Shakespearean actor? Here’s a bunch of them: 

  • Max Von Sydow as Ming
  • Timothy Dalton as Prince Barin
  • Brian Blessed as Prince Vultan
  • Topol as Dr. Hans Zarkov

This actually leads to a problem. In the ’36 original, the supporting players were bit actors who mumbled or hammed it up through their roles, while Crabbe’s Flash was earnest, athletic, dynamic. You could see why he was the star. Here, Sam Jones is fine as Flash, but he’s overwhelmed by the better actors. Ming is more powerful and more merciless; Barin is stronger, angrier, tougher. In the title song, Flash is repeatedly called “savoir of the universe,” but for most of the movie Dalton wipes the screen with him.

Sadly, the plot is pretty much the same. Yes, in the original, Mongo was going to crash into Earth, while here Ming simply toys with us from afar. He creates storms and typhoons and earthquakes, then sets Earth’s moon on a collision course with Earth. Dr. Zarkov recognizes this as an attack, and he’s planning to counterattack via rocketship, but, as in the original, his assistant flees. Which is when Flash and Dale (Melody Anderson) land near him by happenstance. Rather than agreeing to help, as in ’36, Zarkov simply kidnaps them. More exactly, he and Flash fight, but Flash’s crushing blow sends Zarkov into the big red button that starts up the rocket ship and takes them to their destiny. 

Of all the changes that happened in human history between 1936 and 1980, the most visible in the movie—more than atomic energy, computer technology and space flight—is the sexual revolution. In the original, Flash was stalwart; he wasn't interested in Princess Aura no matter how often she threw herself at him—or saved him. Here, from the get go, he's checking her out. So much so that Dale nudges him. “Hey, remember me?” she says. His initial “execution” is occultish, performed by men in metal masks and hooded cloaks that seem like extras from “Eyes Wide Shut." But he's saved by Aura ... who then seduces him.  

We keep waiting for the hero to emerge. Early on, there’s an absurd scene where Flash (a professional football player rather a polo player) is tossed a football-like object and is able—for the first time—to run rings around Ming’s men. It's weird—as if he needed the football to act. Without it, he’s not much. On a tree planet, where Barin acts like a tyrannical Robin Hood, Flash is lowered into a swamp and falls into quicksand, and in Vultan’s “Sky City,” he’s forced to duel Barin. This one he finally wins, then displays his true value by showing mercy. Everyone is stunned. Everyone except us, since it was telegraphed earlier:

Aura: Every moon of Mongo is a kingdom. My father keeps them fighting each other constantly. It’s really brilliant strategy.
Flash: Why don’t they team up and overthrow him?
Aura: Team up? What does that mean?
Flash: Why don’t I show you some time.

After the duel, he gets the air jetski thing, and helps lead the final assault on Ming’s castle. The good guys win, the bad guys are killed, and Barin is declared the new ruler of Mongo. Because what could be better than a tyrannical tree lord?

Barbarella II
I should add the special effects throughout are awful—recalling less 1977’s “Star Wars” than 1967’s “Barbarella,” which De Laurentiis also produced. But even with good effects, I’m not sure how you reboot “Flash Gordon” for the modern age. It’s really just a 1920s boys adventure story to the Orient (see: Ming), set in outer space. At least they left out the Shark King.

Van Sydow is the best thing in the movie. Early on, Zarkov is trying to reason with Ming and says, “We are only interested in friendship. Why do you attack us?” and Ming responds in that cold-blooded, matter-of-fact way of Sydow: “Why not?”  

But such moments are few. Director Mike Hodges made “Get Carter” in 1971 and “Croupier” in 1998, and not much of value in between. Semple, Jr. went on to write the Broccoli-less Bond flick, “Never Say Never Again,” and the jungle disaster “Sheena” with Tanya Roberts. De Laurentiis, with or without his translator, went on to produce some good movies (“Dead Zone”), one great one (“Blue Velvet”) and many disasters (“Dune,” “Maximum Overdrive,” “King Kong Lives,” “Body of Evidence.”). Via IMDb’s user ratings, “Flash” is considered his 101st worst feature film out of exactly 202. Its current rating is 6.5. Unbelievably, it has its fans.

The End?

Posted at 12:33 PM on Friday February 01, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 1980s   |   Permalink  

Wednesday October 21, 2015

Movie Review: Rocky IV (1985)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Blame Hungary.

“Victory,” one of two films Sylvester Stallone starred in between “Rocky II” and “III,” was filmed in 1980 in Budapest, and, according to a July 1981 New York Times article, it made Stallone a “U.S. booster”:

Stallone came home from Hungary a flag waver. He says if everybody had to spend two weeks in a Communist country, “patriotism in America would reach epidemic proportions.”

“To this day, I believe all our hotel rooms were bugged,” he says. “If you had an amorous night with your wife, you’d walk downstairs next morning and everyone would be grinning. The police have keys to everyone’s house. They can turn off all the electricity in a city if they don't like what’s going on. And every couple of months the tanks run down the streets, just to remind people that they’re there.”

Rocky IVWithout “Victory”—in which Allied prisoners symbolically defeat Germany in a soccer match—would we have had “Rocky IV,” in which the U.S. symbolically defeats the U.S.S.R. in a boxing match?

Fucking Hungary, man.

Change and change: What is change?
Here’s the joke from back in 1985: “This time Rocky beats up a big white guy.” But it was Stallone who laughed all the way to the bank. The movie was the No. 3 grosser of the year, after “Back to the Future” and “Rambo: First Blood Part II.” It was Stallone’s peak, top of the world, ma, but it was also the beginning of his end. His movies were becoming too stupid even for his fans.

What a dull mess this thing is. Unadjusted, it’s the highest-grossing “Rocky” but also the shortest (91 minutes); there’s not much there there. Paulie gets a robot, the Soviets enter professional boxing, Ivan Drago kills Apollo Creed in an exhibition bout, so Rocky goes to Russia to train and fight him. Cue: fight.

Poor and garrulous in the first film, Rocky has now become rich and taciturn. His mouth used to run a mile-a-minute as he struggled to entertain (Adrian), advise (little Marie) or explain (Gazzo). He wasn’t the brightest bulb (the locker combo in his hat just killed me), but he was sweet. He had charm. His charm was not knowing he had charm. Here, he’s kinda smart, counseling Apollo correctly, but he barely says anything in the second half of the film. He’s serious and charmless. I miss the old chatty Rocky.

We don’t even get impediments to the fight. In the other “Rocky”s, something always puts the fight on hold: He could go blind (“II”), he’s lost the eye of the tiger (“III”), he’ll die (“V”), he’s old (“Rocky Balboa”). Here, nothing. That’s why so short.

The movie continues the “Rocky” death cycle. We lost Gazzo after “II,” Mickey in “III,” and Apollo here. Actually, the one I miss most is Bill Conti. The emblematic “Rocky” score, as well as its signature song, “Gonna Fly Now,” is lost for some shitty ’80s songs by Survivor and John Cafferty: “Burning Heart” and “Heart’s on Fire.”  Apparently the theme is “heart.”

Wait, did I say there were no impediments to the fight? Adrian, in a thankless role, tries to be that (again). She tries to get Rocky to not fight, but it sets up an absurd contradiction. Here’s the exchange:

Rocky: We can’t change what we are.
Adrian: Yes, you can.
Rocky: We can’t change anything, Adrian!

Contrast with the speech he gives the Soviets after his victory:

During this fight, I’ve seen a lot of changing in the way you feel about me, and in the way I feel about you. In here, there were two guys killing each other, but I guess that's better than twenty million. I guess what I’m trying to say, is that if I can change, and you can change, everybody can change!

So Rocky fights because we can’t change, but after the fight he tells everyone that we can change? In what round did he learn that lesson? 

Another one. In the first “Rocky,” it’s vaguely ominous that Rocky’s bout with Apollo Creed is seen as “a show,” that it’s just marketing, that it doesn’t mean anything. Of course, in the first round, Rocky disabuses Apollo of this notion. “He doesn't know it’s a damn show!” Apollo’s trainer says. “He thinks it’s a damn fight!”

In “IV,” Drago’s bout with Apollo is seen as “a show,” that it doesn’t mean anything. But in the first round, Drago disabuses Apollo of this notion. “What are you guys doing?” Apollo’s trainer yells. “This is supposed to be an exhibition!”

Rocky making the fight real in the first movie is a positive, but Drago doing the same in “IV” is a negative? OK.

Star-spangled shorts
I watch this thing now and think about how sad we were; what need we had.

We need to portray this Russian, and hence all of Russia, as stoic villains who would kill our heroes without a second thought (“If he dies, he dies.”). We need to portray ourselves as the underdogs, smaller and weaker, but naturally strong rather than chemically-enhanced. (They cheat). Then we need to show us going toe-to-toe with them for 15 rounds for the right reasons rather than their wrong reasons (Drago: “I win for me! FOR ME!”), and, as a result, not only do we win, but we win over the crowd, which chants “Rocky! Rocky!” like it’s Philadelphia rather than Moscow. (Question: Was “Rocky! Rocky!” the forerunner to “USA! USA!”? I’m serious. I’m curious.) We even get the Politburo to stand and applaud for us. But being us, we’re magnanimous in victory. We talk about change. Then we drape ourselves in the American flag. Because the star-spangled shorts just aren’t patriotic enough.

Oh, and all of this takes place on Christmas Day.

Fucking Hungary, man. 

Posted at 06:49 AM on Wednesday October 21, 2015 in category Movie Reviews - 1980s   |   Permalink  

Tuesday August 11, 2015

Movie Review: The Killing Fields (1984)

WARNING: SPOILERS

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.

The Killing FieldsWorse, 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?”

Posted at 03:43 PM on Tuesday August 11, 2015 in category Movie Reviews - 1980s   |   Permalink  

Tuesday May 05, 2015

Dig If You Will the Picture: A Few Thoughts on Seeing 'Purple Rain' 31 Years Later

Prince Purple Rain

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.  

Posted at 06:47 AM on Tuesday May 05, 2015 in category Movie Reviews - 1980s   |   Permalink  

Friday July 19, 2013

Movie Review: Hero At Large (1980)

WARNING: SPOILERS

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. Poster for "Hero At Large" starring John Ritter and Anne ArcherHe 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 at the mom-and-pop store

Captain Avenger to the rescue!

Posted at 07:55 AM on Friday July 19, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 1980s   |   Permalink  

Friday June 07, 2013

Movie Review: Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut (1981/2006)

WARNING: SPOILERS

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. Superman II: the Donner CutAlthough 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:

  1. 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.
  2. It makes the comeuppance of Rocky, the diner bully, nonsensical. Now Rocky never attacked Clark and thus deserves no comeuppance.
  3. 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.

Switching Dicks
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

Supercute: Lois and Clark in the best lost scene ever.

Posted at 07:06 AM on Friday June 07, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 1980s   |   Permalink  

Wednesday May 29, 2013

Movie Review: Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)

WARNING: SPOILERS

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.

Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)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.

Superman at the UN in "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace"

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.

The awful drop shadows behind Superman and Lois in "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace"

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.

Perry White and Lois Lane looking old in "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace"

Old, old, worried.

Blue eyebeams
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—

Sssh.

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?

Sssh.

The blue eyebeams of Superman in "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace" (1987)

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.

Mark Rosenthal:

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.

Clark Kent, aerobics, in "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace" (1987)

I hate the '80s.

Posted at 06:37 AM on Wednesday May 29, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 1980s   |   Permalink  

Wednesday May 15, 2013

Movie Review: Superman III (1983)

WARNING: SPOILERS

I always thought the steady drop in quality of the Christopher Reeve Superman movies was akin to the steady drop in their box office (in millions: from $134 to $108 to $59 to $15) but “Superman III” has it over “II” in this respect: Superman (Christopher Reeve) does his job. In the first half hour, he 1) saves a man from drowning in midtown Metropolis; 2) extinguishes a fire at a chemical plant by freezing a lake and flying it over the fire; and 3) stops a thresher from chopping up a kid in the middle of a wheat field. Interestingly, all of these heroics are necessitated by accidents. There is no Luthor or Zod plotting the overthrow of everything. Shit just happens.

Superman IIICould you make an entire movie like that? Without a villain? What would our worldview be like if our wish-fulfillment fantasies involved accidents rather than machinations? Would we be less paranoid? Once the machinations begin here, for example, once billionaire industrialist Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn) uses the computer programming skills of Gus Gorman (Richard Pryor) to corner the market on oil by turning off wells and sending oil tankers to the middle of the Atlantic, and we get long gaslines as we did in 1979, a blue-collar guy at a diner says the following:

Someone’s behind this. You can’t tell me there’s not more oil. You can’t tell me someone’s not getting rich off this. Someone’s always getting rich. And you know who suffers? The small guy.

Our movies are starter kits for paranoids.

More tar, less unknown
But the epic feel of “Superman” is long gone. It’s all rather small now. It’s all rather Smallville.

We get gags. Director Richard Donner steered the movie away from camp in the first film but director Richard Lester steered it right back in “II” and lets loose with both barrels in “III.” During the title credits we get a Rube Goldberg gag reel, one mishap leading to another, involving, at different points, a busty blonde, a blind man, a mime, and zero laughs.

We get evil Superman. Gus’ computer program breaks down the chemical composition of kryptonite but can’t isolate one element: 0.57% unknown, it says. So Gus looks at his cigarette pack and substitutes “tar.” This creates a movie version of red kryptonite, which turns Superman evil. Or at least mischievous. Or horny. Or dirty. He stops shaving and bathing and doing laundry. He rights the Leaning Tower of Pisa to the consternation of comic Italians, blows out the Olympic torch just as the games are about to begin, and creates an oil spill at the request of another busty blonde, Lorelei (Pamela Stephenson), who is working for Webster, so he can sleep with her. Which he totally does. Hey, apparently Superman can sleep with women! So why did his mother tell him otherwise in “II”? And why he isn’t with Lois? Doesn’t he love her? Didn’t he turn back time for her? Eventually he splits in two and battles himself at a junkyard (always a junkyard), and the good side wins. “The Enemy Within” is Proust in comparison.

We get an early ‘80s version of what computer programming is like. “How did you do that?” a teacher asks Gus. “I don’t know,” Gus replies. “I just … did it.” It’s like magic. It’s the only magic in the movie.

Most of all we get Richard Pryor doing bits. Here he does drunk, here he does “Patton,” here he does the bland white-guy voice. He plays at Superman, with a tablecloth as his cape, then skis off a high-rise and walks away, looking, not astonished at surviving a 40-story fall, but simply embarrassed. He looks embarrassed throughout. He should. Nothing he does is remotely funny. In the beginning he’s on the dole, 36 weeks, until his unemployment benefits are cut off; then he gets the computer programming idea from a matchbook. What does he do after receiving his first paycheck? Complains about taxes. But didn’t that just pay for his unemployment benefits?

Our movies are starter kits for libertarians.

Evil Superman

Evil Superman: Doesn't shower, shave, do laundry or hide his brown roots.

Richard Pryor doing bits
The story? Clark returns to Smallville, ostensibly to write about how small towns are doing in the new economy (always the new economy), but mostly to romance former flame Lana (Annette O’Toole), who is a single mom. Lois Lane? She’s in Bermuda. Apparently Margot Kidder complained about working with Richard Lester so they cut her part to 12 lines. That’ll serve her for being right.

Elsewhere, a computer wizard is born. Gus hears of the rounding down of paychecks, the fractions of cents that don’t make it into our pockets, and he creates a program to gather these fractions for himself. His first supplementary check amounts to $85,000. I have to admit, I always remembered this part of the movie. I thought it was clever.

When Gus is caught, he’s put to work doing bad deeds, and comic routines, for Webster, and his nasty sister, Vera (Annie Ross), and Lorelei—who, in a bit that goes nowhere, is actually really, really smart. They’re like Luthor, Otis and Miss Tessmacher without the personality. In their employ, Gus destroys the Colombia coffee crop, corners the market on oil, creates fake kryptonite and designs a supercomputer, which, since computers are magic things we don’t trust, eventually comes to life and tries to destroy everybody. But at no point does he question what he’s doing. People are dying and all he wants is a raise.

In the battle with the supercomputer, there’s a good, scary moment when Vera is pulled in and Borgified but …. what happens to her? What happens to Webster and the blonde? We never find out. Superman blows up the computer, he and Gus exchange a soul-brother handshake in the rubble, then Gus is flown over trees and set down in a coalyard. He does another unfunny improv bit for the confused guys there, then walks away. He doesn’t even go to jail. Because he’s Richard Pryor, co-star.

Superman carrying Richard Pryor

Carrying Pryor throughout.

What part of ‘Superman’ do they not understand?
I was an usher at a second-run movie theater, the Boulevard I and II in south Minneapolis, where this thing played during the summer of ’83. I was still a Superman fan but I could barely watch it for all of the above reasons.

Things just bugged me. Minor details like logic. During the Rube Goldberg opening, Clark, still wearing a fedora, ducks into a street photobooth to change into Superman just as a kid (apparently the kid who played baby Kal-El in “Superman: The Movie”) plops in a quarter. The photobooth then captures Clark changing into Superman in four separate photos. Cute. But what’s the interval in photobooth pictures? A few seconds? How long does it take Clark to change into Superman? A tenth of a second? A hundredth of a second? Like that? Like you snap your fingers and you’re late? At best you’d get a blur in one photo and nothing in the rest. Don’t they know who their hero is? What part of “Superman” do they not understand?

The thresher scene is worse. Lana’s boy, Ricky, is unconscious next to a rock in high wheat. Threshers are bearing down on him. Clark sees all this, makes an excuse and changes into Superman.

  • Cut to: the boy, unconscious.
  • Cut to: the threshers, apparently, 50 yards away from the boy.
  • Cut to: the threshers threshing as the music becomes pulse-pounding.
  • Cut to: Superman flying toward the thresher.
  • Cut to: the threshers from Superman’s perspective. He’s nearly there.
  • Cut to: the thresher threshing.
  • Cut to: the boy again.
  • Cut to: the threshers again.
  • Cut to: Superman again, still not there.
  • Cut to …

It should take a second. You should snap your fingers and you’d be late. Instead, they lengthen it out to half a minute of screentime. Interminable.

Superman carrying Ricky after the thresher in Superman III

“It took 30 seconds, Ricky, but I finally flew that 100 yards to save you.”

Not campy like TV's “Batman”
“Superman III” is just depressing. They take away Lois, sub in B-grade villains, and give a fading star (Pryor) plenty of room for his unfunny improv. Think of everything they could’ve done with this movie and look at what they did. Look at what they did to my boy.

When the Salkinds began “Superman: The Movie,” director Richard Donner’s on-set catchphrase was “verisimilitude.” He strove for the epic and heroic. Everyone did. No one wanted to make it campy like TV’s “Batman.”

I’m not suggesting that under Richard Lester’s direction “Superman” became campy like TV's “Batman.” TV’s “Batman” had the virtue of being funny.

Richard Pryor doing bits in Superman III

Bits.

Posted at 06:11 AM on Wednesday May 15, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 1980s   |   Permalink  

Monday May 06, 2013

Movie Review: Superman II (1981)

WARNING: SPOILERS

I saw “Superman: The Movie” six times in the theater in the late 1970s. I saw “Superman II” once during the summer of 1981. It’s not just that the original came out when I was 15 and still reading comic books, and the sequel came out when I was 18 and heading toward college and something resembling adulthood. “Superman II” just isn’t very good.

The director of the first film, Richard Donner, clashed with producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind over budget and scheduling, and, even though 80 percent of principal photography on “II” was done with “I,” he was replaced by Richard Lester (“A Hard Day’s Night”), who didn’t know from Poster for Superman IISuperman. He didn’t know from comic books. And he didn’t like the epic way Donner filmed the first movie—what he called “the David Lean thing,” which included the sweeping camera shots of cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth (“2001: A Space Odyssey”). Lester insisted upon flat, static camera shots to evoke comic book panels. He got it. He wanted a less serious movie. He got that, too.

The Clementis of “Superman II”
The second movie begins with an eight-and-a-half-minute recap of the first movie. We see the three Kryptonian criminals, Zod, Ursa and Non (Terrence Stamp, Sarah Douglas and Jack O’Halloran), steal into one of those non-rooms on Krypton, grab a red crystal and break it in two. Then the room goes black, they’re imprisoned by those hula hoop thingees and charged with treason. They’re all pronounced “guilty guilty guilty” and sent off to the Forbidden Zone, while Lara (Susannah York) takes the baby Kal-El and off he goes and… Jesus, they’re going to recap the whole thing? Smallville and Metropolis and helicopter rescue and San Andreas fault? Yes. Yes, they are. The whole thing has an “On the last episode of ‘Superman’…” vibe. It feels cheap.

It feels particularly cheap because Jor-El (Marlon Brando) has been excised. Brando was in litigation with the Salkinds, who were often in litigation over non-payment, and he’d been promised a percentage of the profits if he appeared in “Superman II.’ That’s why he didn’t. He’s gone, scrubbed, like Clementis disappearing in the beginning of Milan Kundera’s “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.” The signing of Marlon Brando for the first film announced its seriousness. His removal from the second film announced the opposite.

The movie proper begins when Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) strolls into the Daily Planet in the middle of the day while his colleagues are working. It’s supposed to be funny when everyone ignores him—as it was funny in “Superman: The Movie” when everyone ignored his “Good night” wishes—but it’s not. They’re doing their jobs and he’s not. Doesn’t he care? Is Kal-El that contemptuous of human affairs? Only after some back and forth with Perry White (Jackie Cooper) does he even realize that three terrorists (including a young Richard Griffiths) are holding the Eiffel Tower and Paris hostage with a hydrogen bomb, and Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) is already on the scene. So where was Clark/Superman this entire time? Doing good deeds in outer space? At the Fortress of Solitude? We never find out.

The whole “not doing your job” thing suffuses the entire movie, by the way. You could almost call it a theme.  

Supes finally shows up and saves Lois, who is trapped in a falling Eiffel Tower elevator with an H-bomb attached. “I believe this is your floor,” he says with a kind of James Bondian twinkle. Ha! Yeah, no. Then he sends the elevator, and the H-bomb, into outer space. This is the second nuclear device Supes has detonated in space in so many movies. Yet when Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) invades the Fortress of Solitude and accesses its Kryptonian learning program, the second lesson he learns is all about Zod, Ursa and Non, the Phantom Zone, and this warning from Lara, finally getting screentime:

The Phantom Zone might, might be cracked open by a nuclear explosion in space.

Two possibilities: Superman either forgot this lesson or he never learned it. Either way, he’s not doing his job.

Lara in Superman II

Lara, wife of Clementis.

This is not a job for Superman
That theme continues. As Zod, Ursa and Non terrorize and kill, first, astronauts on the moon, then a small Idaho town with a redneck Southern sheriff and a boy with an unmistakable British accent, Clark romances, sadly, pathetically, Lois, as the two investigate a Niagara Falls honeymoon scam. “Lois, look,” he says, full of need. “Everyone’s holding hands. Maybe we should hold hands, too.” One wonders what game he’s playing here. Why be pathetic as Clark? To better conceal his identity? Lois obviously loves him as Superman, when he’s at his strongest, so maybe he wants her to to love him at his weakest? Does he truly feel like a schlep? Or is Clark, as Quentin Tarantino has suggested, Kal-El’s rather cruel imitation of humanity? It’s how he sees us. What fools these mortals be.

Mortals certainly be in this movie. We get parents too busy to watch their kid hanging over the railing at Niagara Falls, and a kid too stupid to realize the danger he’s in. We get Lois jumping into the rapids to prove Clark is Superman. There’s the insinuating bellhop, and the redneck sheriff and his Barney Fife deputy, and the trigger-happy gendarmes willing to blow up Paris, and the lackadaisical NASA men at mission control in Houston (including Cliff from “Cheers”), and all of the fools, the many, many fools, treating the final battle between Superman and Zod on the streets of Metropolis as if it were a WWF cage match rather than a battle to determine if three Kryptonians rule the world or we do; whether we’re free or forever enslaved.

The movie also blows the great superhero reveal. From the Scarlet Pimpernel to Zorro to Superman, there’s been a girl. The girl loves the hero but dislikes, or is disappointed in, or doesn’t even acknowledge, the hero in his secret form. It’s the classic love triangle of superherodom and a solace for unrequited lovers everywhere. She rejects me (Clark) because she doesn’t see the real me (Superman). She fails to see what’s super in me. And here, finally, the disconnect is connected. The two men become one.

And it’s as boring as shit.

Lois, always feisty, becomes wide-eyed and starstruck. Superman, always polite and distant, becomes supersenstitive:

Superman: We have to talk.
Lois: I’m in love with you.
Superman: Then we really better talk …
Lois: Where do you want to … talk?
Superman: Let’s go to my place.

At the Fortress of Solitude, Lois belts out, “Wow! This is your home?!” after which Superman flies around the world to get flowers and groceries. Meanwhile, people are dying in Idaho. “Where’s Superman?” people plead. “Where is he? Why doesn’t he do something?” Sorry, but he’s pouring champagne for Lois. When she says, “I’m going to change into something more comfortable,” he uses the opportunity to speak with hologram Lara about what he needs to do to consummate the relationship. She delivers a stern warning:

You must become one of them. All your great powers on Earth will disappear forever. But consider: Once it is done there is no return.

There is no return. Until there is.

They sleep together in a silver satin hammock-bed that seems stolen from Andy Gibb’s 1970s pad. Meanwhile the President of the United States (E.G. Marshall in toupee) is kneeling before Zod.

Question: How can we not hate Superman at this moment? The movie is actually set up so we hate Superman. Because he isn’t doing his job. Then Clark loses a diner fight with an asshole named Rocky. Then he discovers that the Earth is at the mercy of Zod. Then he walks back alone to the Fortress, through the Arctic cold, without hat or gloves or anything, and begs hologram Lara for his powers back. “FATHERRRRRRRR!” he cries.

Sorry, Kal-El. Father is in litigation at the moment.

Superman and Lois and a bottle of champagne in the Fortress of Solitude

Superman and Lois in Andy Gibb's bed

After booze, Supes loses his powers and beds Lois at Andy Gibb's place.

Cheap cheap cheap, talk a lot, pick a little more
So how does he get his powers back? His picks up a green crystal and all of a sudden he’s streaking toward Metropolis and saying, “Care to step outside, General?” This thing is a joke. It gives Kryptonians the power to point at things and levitate them. It gives Superman the power to kiss away Lois’s memory. It gives the Salkinds the power to kiss away Jor-El. It’s a hot, holy mess, Batman.

They didn’t just excise Brando. They actually filmed without Hackman, Beatty or Perrine. For the Luthor scenes, they just used footage Donner shot. You know the difficulty of maintaining continuity over several days? Try three years. Watching, you can play a game: This was shot in ’77, this in ’80. Here Lois has split ends, here she doesn’t. Here she’s younger, here Margot Kidder’s drug addiction is beginning to show.

They use the cheapest cinematic glue—the distant shot overdub— to bind the story together. When Lex and Miss Tessmacher return from the Fortress of Solitude, someone, sounding like Hackman but not Hackman, says of Zod and company, “Wait, that explains the three alpha waves I’ve been getting on my black box! They’ll need a contact on earth! … South, Miss Tessmacher!” And off they go. We never see her again. Shame. Greater shame? We don’t even need this overdub. We get it when Luthor just shows up at the White House. It’s not difficult.

So much is cheap here. The flying looks worse, the lunar capsule looks like tinfoil, the supervillains shove humans around like they’re on an old episode of “The Six Million Dollar Man.” Sure, special effects are expensive. But how much does an American kid cost? Did no one tell the British filmmakers how British the Idaho kid sounded? Like he’s Oliver Twist asking for porridge: “Please, general. Please put me Daddy down.” And do we need a full minute of Zod using his superbreath to blow Metropolitans around? Like it’s a vaudeville routine? For the scene, according to IMDb.com, “Director Richard Lester improvised most of the jokes.” Jokes?

The pivotal moment of the movie doesn’t even make sense. When Superman first loses his powers in the crystal chamber, he grimaces in pain and emerges with blow-dried hair and jeans. When Superman reverses the crystal chamber so the supervillains lose their powers, they don’t even know it’s happening. How to account for this discrepancy? And why would Superman, emerging, kneel before Zod even momentarily before crushing his hand and killing him? Even at 18, I thought it was bullshit.

Lois Lane, shot by Richard Donner

This was shot by Richard Donner in 1977...

Lois Lane, shot by Richard Lester, in Superman II

... and this split-ends version by Richard Lester in 1980. Same scene, three years apart, different conditioner.

Flattening Superman
When the Salkinds began this project back in 1974 we were smack in the middle of the Easy Riders/Raging Bulls decade of great American filmmaking. By the time “Superman II” was released in June 1981, the era of the blockbuster and its neverending sequels had begun. The Salkinds helped in this regard. “Superman” was No. 2 at the box office in 1978 (after “Grease”) and “Superman II” was No. 3 at the box office in 1981 (after “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “On Golden Pond”). Adjust for inflation, and the first grossed $461 million in the U.S., the second $313 million. Yet somehow they couldn’t find a way to settle with Brando.

So much happened between ’78 and ’81. We went from the middle of Jimmy Carter’s presidency to the beginning of Ronald Reagan’s. Gas prices shot up. Hostages were taken. Chest thumping began. The movies got dumber.

What a shame. “Superman: The Movie,” directed by Richard Donner, was heroic, epic and funny. “Superman II,” directed by Richard Lester, was none of these things. Lester did what Zod, Ursa and Non couldn’t do. He flattened Superman.

Superman and the American flag in "Superman II"

Truth, justice, etc.: The beginning of the chest-thumping stupidity.

Posted at 07:32 AM on Monday May 06, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 1980s   |   Permalink  

Saturday November 17, 2012

Movie Review: Supergirl (1984)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Near the end of “Supergirl,” after Selena the Witch (Faye Dunaway) has been defeated and the Omegahedron, which powers Argo City, the bubbled asteroid of Krypton, is back in Supergirl’s hands, Supergirl (Helen Slater) turns to her new friends, Lucy Lane (Maureen Teefy) and Jimmy Olsen (Marc McClure, reprising his role), and begins to ask a favor. Jimmy interrupts:

Jimmy: It’s all right, Supergirl. We never saw you.
Lucy: We never even heard of you.

Jimmy’s turned out to be the truer prognostication. Barely anyone saw “Supergirl” in November 1984 but we all heard about it. We all heard it was awful.

It’s worse than awful. From my notes:

  • WTF?
  • Wow, this is bad.
  • Ouch ouch ouch.
  • It’s actually getting dumber.
  • OK, this is insanely bad.

It has to be one of the worst wide-release movies ever made.

After Krypto and Beppo, before Streaky and Comet
Supergirl (1984), starring Helen SlaterSupergirl, the character, was created in 1959 during a period of comic-book doldrums in which the rulers of DC nearly destroyed their most lucrative property, Superman, by surrounding him with super dogs, cats, horses, monkeys, and, yes, even a girl. Chronologically, Kara the Supergirl appeared after Krypto the Superdog and Beppo the Supermonkey but before Streaky the Supercat and Comet the Superhorse. Just so you know where she ranks.

The men at DC never quite knew what to do with her. They still don’t. She started out in a skirt, went to hot pants during the ’70s, was killed off in the ’80s. Two years after this movie. Coincidence?

Christopher Reeve was the seventh man to play Superman, including voice-only work from Bud Collyer, Bob Hastings and Danny Dark, but Helen Slater was the first ever to play Supergirl. Really? She never showed up in the “Superman/Aquaman Hour” in the 1960s? She was never a part of “Super Friends” in the 1970s and ’80s? Apparently nobody wanted her. She’s such a non-entity she doesn’t even have an arch-nemesis. No Lex Luthor, Brainiac or even a Mr. Mxyzptlk. Which is how we got Selena the Witch.

Reeve’s Superman was an innocent who knew everything while Slater’s Supergirl is an innocent who knows nothing. She grew up as Kara on Argo City, a chunk of Krypton that looks like an adobe village drifting through space, and was apparently taught nothing by her parents Zor-El and Alura (Simon Ward and Mia Farrow). She says she’s bad at math. She says it like she’s hypnotized. That’s how she spends most of the movie.

Fighting over boys
As “Supergirl” opens, the Omegahedron, which powers Argo City, is borrowed by the well-meaning but tipsy Zaltar (Peter O’Toole). Kara comes upon him in the act of creation.

Kara: What is that going to be Zaltar?
Zaltar: I think, a tree.
Kara: A tree. What is a tree?
Zaltar: A lovely thing that grows on Earth.

It gets worse. Zaltar gives Kara the Omegahedron, with which she creates a dragonfly that flies out of Argo City, through a kind of transdimensionality, and toward Earth, where it plops, yes, into the orange dip of Selena, who is enjoying a picnic lunch with a warlock, Nigel (Peter Cook), while talking of her plans to take over the world. And now, with the Omegahedron, she can! Kara, hijacking a bubblecopter, follows, and emerges on Earth, through a lake, as Supergirl, costumed and everything.

OK: Argo City will die in a matter of days without the Omegahedron. So what does Kara do upon arrival? She smells flowers. She bounces around, testing her powers. She flies above horses. You know: girly things. She briefly goes to a city, where she’s menaced by two asshole truck drivers who get theirs, then returns to a more bucolic setting. She falls asleep, softly, in the woods, and wakes up, softly, near a bunny rabbit. I’m not kidding. Then a softball rolls by. Private school girls are playing a softball game and Kara decides to become one of them. She adopts the secret identity of Linda Lee, after Robert E., and winds up rooming with Lucy Lane, Lois’ cousin, and goes to classes, where she’s suddenly good at math. “Don’t go showing it off,” Lucy counsels, “because nobody’s going to like you.” There’s a mean girl who gets hers, and a studly landscaper, Ethan (Hart Bochner), whom all the girls coo over, including, it turns out, Selena. From her lair in an old amusement park, she kidnaps and casts a spell upon Ethan so he’ll fall in love with the first face he sees upon waking. Selena assumes it’ll be hers. But she’s occupied when he wakes, and he stumbles through a tunnel with his eyes closed, and into the town, where the kids from the school are at the local fast-food joint. He stumbles into traffic. Will he die? Will he open his eyes? Selena’s attempts to control the situation through magic make things worse, and Supergirl has to show up to save the day. All of this takes about 10 minutes of screentime. Meanwhile, Ethan still hasn’t opened his eyes. When he does? He sees Linda Lee. Big surprise. He kisses her. He makes her swoon. And boy does that make Selena mad.

Basically what we have here is a clash between two female super novices, Supergirl, who needs the Omegahedron to save everything she’s ever known, and Selena, who is using the Omegahedron to take over the world, and both are distracted from their primary task because of a crush on a boy. The filmmakers, writer David Odell and director Jeannot Szwarc, couldn’t have made it more insulting if they’d tried.

The triumph of someone else’s will
Eventually Selena, mastering her powers, sends Supergirl into the Phantom Zone, where she meets Zaltar, banished there for stealing the Omegahedron in the first place. He’s also given up. Not her. Her pep inspires him to find a way out, which involves climbing a kind of rockface against a kind of fierce wind. But it’s so difficult she’s ready to give up. “I can’t,” she says. “You can,” he replies. Then he dies. But she escapes and flies from the Phantom Zone right back into Selena’s lair. She stands there, arms akimbo, and declares, “You’ve had your fun, Selena. The game is finished.”

Ah, but it isn’t. Selena creates a monster, which kind of crushes or stretches Supergirl, who cries, again, “I can’t!” Can’t what? Die? Can’t bear the pain? Of the monster or the movie? When she hears Zaltar’s voice telling her, again “You can!,” like he’s Obi-wan Kenobi or something, this helps Supergirl, who’s just a girl after all and thus can’t find the strength and will on her own, find the strength and will to fight back. Then she uses her superspeed, as she should have from the start rather than standing around arms akimbo, to defeat Selena. The power of shadows turns on Selena and her henchwoman, the fairly innocent Bianca (Brenda Vaccaro), and takes both into a … vortex, I guess, where they suffer or die. Who knows? Who cares? We get Jimmy and Lucy’s lines above, and Supergirl flies off with the Omegahedron to finally, finally, deliver it to Argo City, which is surely dust by now.

“Supergirl” didn’t immediately die. It opened Thanksgiving weekend 1984 and was No. 1 at the box office with $5.7 million. Then word got out. It fell off 55% the following weekend, then 63%. Its final domestic gross was $14.2 million. Not even three times what it made opening weekend.

This was six years after “Superman: The Movie” (which opened at $7.4 million and grossed $134 million, to give you an idea of the legs good movies had back then); but despite a $35 million budget the special effects often recall the Superman TV show of the 1950s. The acting is horrible. Slater is all wide-eyed doeiness while Dunaway’s narrowed eyes perpetually flash malevolence. Peter Cook is wasted. Vaccaro is supposed to play comic support, like Ned Beatty in “Superman,” but she comes across as a voice of reason. “I think you’re blowing this out of proportion,” she tells Selena halfway through. “All I’m saying is you can’t go nuts over a landscape guy and a teenager in a blue suit.” It’s as if she’s critiquing the film from within the film. It’s like she’s trapped in her own kind of Phantom Zone. Maybe they all are. Poor bastards. They hurtle through time and space, trapped in this movie forever.

Supergirl (Helen Slater) trapped in the Phantom Zone

Posted at 09:45 AM on Saturday November 17, 2012 in category Movie Reviews - 1980s   |   Permalink  
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