Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Please forgive our appearance while we switch the blog over and give it a make over. Thank you.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Mamoulian's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: A pre-code tour de force!

Once is a great while, you see an older film and ask yourself the question “why haven’t I watched this sooner?” Such is the case for me when it comes to the 1931 version of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”. Made the same year as James Whale’s “Frankenstein” and Tod Browning's “Dracula” to say that 1931 was a good year for horror movies is an understatement!
And this film puts the kibosh on the notion that movies “stopped moving” in the early thirties because of sound. In fact, this film starts off with a brilliant point of view tracking shot that puts us into Dr. Jekyll (pronounced Jeekyll in this version) shoes.
And the transformation scenes have to be seen to be believed! This film proves that CGI is not the end all to be all. Sometimes “in camera” effects can be just as effective! It really is very impressive, even by today’s standards.
Director Rouben Mamoulian along with cameraman Karl Struss create the perfect expressionistic mood the story calls for. From split screen wipes to subjective camera moves, the film is really a tour de force.

Also great are the performances by Fredric March and Miriam Hopkins. March won the 1931 academy award for his performance. But Hopkins is just as good. She moves effortlessly from sultry temptress to helpless victim. It’s truly an amazing performance that’s definitely on a par with March.
The DVD release contains 14 minutes of newly restored material. Original released pre-code and then chopped after various re-releases, this version comes as close as possible to the original vision. An informative commentary is provided by film historian Greg Mank.
Also included on the DVD is the 1941 version of the film starring Spencer Tracy. While the Tracy version has its moments and that MGM gloss, the 1931 version is the true classic.

Miriam Hopkins as Champagne Ivy

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Superman Returns…but I wish he didn’t!

John Williams opening theme begins to fill my ears. One of the best pieces of film music ever. The hair rises on my arms. Superman is back and I think it’s a great thing. Its opening night and I have dragged some friends out for this momentous occasion. The film is getting rave reviews (a certified fresh 76 percent rating at Rotten Tomatoes) and I’m pumped to see this film. Two hours and 35 minutes later, the lights come on and I have a bad feeling in my gut. Why didn’t this film work for me? Bryan Singer is a fine director (his X-Men films really deliver the goods.) So what the hell happened? I don’t think I’m alone in my feelings for this film. The box office, while good, is far from outstanding. I’m sure a lot of Hollywood power players are scratching their heads on that one. I’ll play Monday morning quarterback here and try to figure out why “Superman Returns” fails as a story.

I’ve seen the film twice theatrically. The first time on opening night and then a few weeks later I caught the Imax presentation with sections in 3D. I‘ve also read the shooting script which contains material not in the finished film. (Did you know that Martha Kent is shacking up with Ben Hubbard?! Believe me, you’re not missing anything.)

I have so many problems with this film. First off, it’s too dark for a Superman movie. Kate Bosworth (a fine actress) is miscast as Lois Lane. She’s way too young to be playing the character. They get Superman’s suit all wrong. I mean, what’s up with that dull red cape?! Frank Langella is a great actor but he’s no Perry White. His Perry White is dark and brooding. Perry White should be energetic and snappy! I found the casting across the board to be generic. It’s like a summer stock company putting on a Superman movie! And the movie is sluggish. When it should soar, it fizzles. And the film almost comes to a complete stop at its climax. I think Lex Luthor INC might be a silent partner with the producers on this one!

I also really miss the "His Girl Friday" dialogue that was a staple of the Daily Planet scenes in Superman 1 & 2. In fact, most of the good Daily Planet stuff has been replaced by the "Lois Lane love triangle". It feels like a lifetime movie of the week. This is fun? Mr. Mankiewicz, give these screenwriters some lessons!!

I think my biggest problem with this film is Lois Lane. The idea the Superman has a “love child” with her is one of the worse ideas ever. Superman should be role model. Standing for truth, justice, and yes, the AMERICAN way. (By the way, this year I was lucky enough to catch a screening in New York of “Superman the Movie”. When Superman says the line “I’m here to stand for truth, justice and the American way”, the audience burst into applause! It was an obvious reaction to “Superman Returns” notion that Superman should stand for “Truth, justice and all that stuff”.) He shouldn’t be “doing” Lois on the side! Plus, Superman and Lois should always have a sexual tension between them. Once the cat is out of the bag, all the tension is lost. That’s why I think their scenes together don’t work. And what’s up with that kid? Is it Singers tribute to Donner’s “The Omen”?! Creepy stuff.

Yes, when it comes to Superman I’m a prude. But I don’t want my Superman to be a dark, angst ridden character. That’s Batman folks. It doesn’t work in a Superman movie.

Here's another point of view on the film sent to me by my friend Joe. He really nails it!

I had one thought at the end of the movie... 'Can't anyone actually WRITE anymore?'

I really, really, REALLY, wanted to like this movie. And on one hand, I do like certain aspects of it. But, when all was said and done, once you looked past all the flaws, there wasnt much left. The writing was just so bad, the dialogue was flat and boring, and many of the scenes were down-right uncomfortable. I just felt that, at every turn, I was sitting there like... "huh?"

First off, I dont know why they had to go with a whole 'Superman Returns' concept. If they wanted this film to be a part of the Christopher Reeve series, why not just pick up where they left off? I heard they wrote this with Supe 1 and 2 in mind, and ignoring 3 and 4. So you are talking about a 26 year gap since Superman 2. Writing 'Superman's 5-year absence into the film does little to explain the gap away. But, an explanation wasnt really needed anyway.

The Superman story already asks us to ignore the obvious fact that no one in thier right mind wouldnt know that Clark Kent and Superman are one in the same. Why pile on the fact that Clark and Superman leave at exactly the same time, and return to Metropolis at exactly the same time too? Lois doesnt notice that she says "Welcome back, Clark" and "Where ya been, Supe?" in the same afternoon?

Oh, the fact that Luthor has gotten out of prison the same week is also pretty convenient. And what does this criminal mastermind do to rebuild his empire? Bangs an old widow, and inherits her fortune? He should have talked to Anna Nicole Smith before assuming that was a guaranteed way to make instant cash.

I digress... Luthor wants to hatch a real estate plan to put his California earthquake deal to shame. He's so impressed with Superman's Fortress of Solitude that he decides he wants to essentially rebuild Krypton on Earth. (Either that or it's just the fact that crystals work faster and cheaper than your average subcontractors.) Superman gets sent to earth with a green crystal, which is apparently used to build the Fortress of Solitude. Fair enough. Now here I thought that this crystal was specifically designed (or 'programmed') for this purpose... little did I know that these crystals are basically like Gremlins -- Get them wet and these suckers just grow like weeds. Even a tiny crystal the size of a grain of sand will explode into a mammoth, mini-Fortress. Advanced technology, or non-thinking weed? (Metachlorines, anyone?) If it was that easy, why didnt Jor-El just launch a few of those little buggers at a nearby uninhabited planet, and viola, a brand new Krypton! Ok, so Luthor's a little smarter than Jor-El I guess.

And please, would someone either lock the door on the Fortress of Solitude, or put a 4-digit PIN number on that control board??

Ok, so Luthor wants to create a 1:1 scale model of Krypton which will destroy and occupy most of America. I guess Luthor really prefers the Europeans, cause there wont by any Americans left to buy up his beachfront land. Yes, he did say 'beachfront land'... did anyone else see anything resembling sand on these giant masses of crystal? Living on miles of jagged crystal suddenly makes living on the moon as not such a bad deal.

Well luckily Superman is around to slap the kabosh on this. After 5 years, baby Kal-El crash lands his spaceship in the Kent's cornfield. (Oh wait, it's grown up Superman crash landing in the Kent's corn fields.) ummm...Where did he get the rocketship from?? And why is he even IN a rocketship? Why did it crash? Can't he just land it? And did I see this right? -- Why is he in 'swaddling clothes', and half naked, and in such bad shape? Hello? Writers?? And while you're writing, can you at least camoflage this blatent shortcut with more than a simple "Astromomers thought they found Krypton.... but nah." I payed $9 for this movie, can you give me some interesting side story about what happened? "Look, Superman left, and now he's back. What's the difference where he went and why."

But, Superman returns to Earth, just as Clark Kent returns to the Daily Planet after going on a five-year long African safari. And just in time too, cause Lois Lane is about to get toasted in an airplane when the space shuttle on the back of the plane fails to disengage, and the rockets will blast the plane. I guess they are still setting this movie in the 1970's, cause I havent seen this happen since Moonraker.

So Supe saves the Shuttle, saves the plane from crashing, and quotes himself verbatim from the original film. Sorry...but, duh.

But, despite his unchanging taglines, Superman seems a little different. He hasnt lost his crush on Lois despite the fact that she's in a solid relationship with the man who has born her a child (or so Supes thinks). Doesnt stop him from putting the moves on Lois, which is ironic since he seems to take things a lot slower back when she was single, childless, and practially gagging to show him a super good roll in the hay. When his advances arent returned, he goes to her house, uses his X-ray vision to become a Super-peeping tom, and his super hearing to listen in on her private conversations. Ew. Insert jokes about girls locker rooms.

Nothing makes you forget your women troubles like saving a few lives. Little does he know that the trashy-dressed girl with car troubles is really just a distraction while Luthor steals himself a little meteor from Addis Ababa. Didnt he already steal this one? Or is Addis Ababa the only place kryptonite lands?

Ok anyway, Luthor tricks the crystals into rebuilding Krypton out of kryptonite. Leaving out all the obvious questions about how the crystal makes a little kryptonite grow into a giant island. Maybe he should have thrown a bar of gold in there too, and 'isnt Krypton made of kryptonite anyway?' Whatever... Superman confronts Luthor and walks into the kryptonite trap yet again. Rather than proving 'mind over muscle' -- Spacey's Luthor doesnt show off his witty mind, no great dialogue here... Luthor starts kicking the shit out of Superman, and then actually stabs Superman with a kryptonite shiv. Um... can I have Gene Hackman back?

And after all this, there isnt any satisfaction of seeing Superman march Luthor off to jail. And I agree with everyone else that it was too long. The whole hospital scene didnt add anything. As someone said, if Supe knew he was going back to throw Krypton Island into space... why not grab a radiation suit or something? And it's a pretty lucky thing he landed in a park in a populated area, and not back down in the ocean where he just came from. Ahem.

Anyway, throw in Super-baby who commits his very first murder-by-piano, and there you have Superman Returns.

Incidentally, the whole concept of the super-baby was confusing as hell too. Would Superman's son, conceived after he lost his super powers, be a super baby? Would super babies have asthma?

I think this story was crying out for a Mario Puzo to craft a real story. I think the next one has potential, but after this one, I'm not really too anxious for it.

Thanks Joe for letting me share this e-mail!

Tuesday, December 05, 2006


“This is no fantasy. No careless product of wild imagination.” And so begins the opening moments of “Superman the Movie.” Pretty ballsy to set the bar so high right from the get go. But this movie delivers on its promise. For me, it’s the “Citizen Kane” of superhero movies. I first saw this film as a young lad at the age of 10. I marveled to Superman’s daring rescues and the spectacle of it all. Then, 3 years later, “Superman 2” arrived on movie screens. Every 13 year old I knew thought it was the best Superman movie ever! Lots more daring rescues and thrilling battles over and in Metropolis. But as the years rolled by, I found myself drawn more and more to the first film. As I came of age, I realized that this film was something I would have run away from at 10 years old had somebody said these words about it; this is a love story! I also began to realize that the first film had a style and class that the sequel didn’t. “Superman 2” has curious slapstick thrown in where it doesn’t belong. All the pedestrians in the film come off as real dopes (and would be brought to embarrassing new heights in “Superman 3”) and it’s really annoying, especially with repeat viewings. Then, I was to discover the whole “dirty” truth about “Superman 2”. That Richard Donner, director of the first film, was dismissed from the project. That Richard Lester took over. That the Brando footage was dumped. That the original script was re-tooled. Over the years, the Donner footage shot for “Superman 2” became the stuff of film geek legend. And now, almost 30 years after it was shot, we finally get to see “Superman 2: The Richard Donner cut”. Was it worth the wait? Hell yeah! Is the whole experience a little bittersweet? Well…in a word, yes.

One of the problems the new cut encounters is the ending. Originally planned was Superman turning back the world. When this idea was instead used for the climax of the first picture, a new ending had to be conjured up for the second part. Unfortunately, Donner never got that far. He was dismissed before he and the screenwriters could come up with a new ending. So what we get in the Donner cut of “Superman 2” is that ending. I think the ending of the Lester cut works better. And I really miss the whole patriotic climax. There seems to be a mantra of using as little of Lester’s footage as possible. I can understand this from Donner’s point of view. However, as you watch the film, you begin to wonder if this is a good idea from a story standpoint. Does the film still work? I think it does. But the compromises do keep it just shy of being the classic that the first installment is.

The Brando footage is amazing! I always missed Jor-el in the Lester cut of the film (and his absence was always conspicuous.) and it’s great to have him back. The “new” scenes at the fortress of solitude really blow away the Lester version. And Superman getting his powers back has a lot more of an emotional punch in the Donner version. A vast improvement!

And we do get a little bit more of Hackmen here too. Most of his scenes have been extended. I loved that he gets a little more time with Miss Teschmacher. (By the way, all of his scenes in the Lester cut were filmed by Donner.)

The new cut is edited by Michael Thau and I have to say, he makes some curious choices from time to time. The prologue of the new cut is just too long. Do we really need to see the scene from part one where Luthor springs the kroyptonite on Superman? Or Miss Teschmacher rescuing Superman? I don’t think so. But in the same prologue, he does a great job using alternate takes from the first film as the 3 villains are sent into the phantom zone. The film also cuts between the villain’s arrival on earth and Lois discovering that Clark Kent is really Superman. I think the Lester cut has a better pace with the cross-cutting between these two storylines. But I also think the Lester cut has more material to work with. But other sequences are much better. Like the villains assault of the astronauts on the moon and their siege of the White House. And almost all the pedestrian slapstick is out. A good thing for sure.

One key sequence uses screen test material of Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder. Surprisingly, the scene DOES work! But you can see how both became better actors as the shooting progressed.

Even with its compromises, “Superman 2: The Donner cut” is way better than this year’s sluggish and miscast “Superman Returns”. But it’s probably due to that film that the “Superman 2: The Donner cut” has reached DVD. So, with that mindset, I’m grateful that there is a “Superman Returns”!

For more about Lester vs Donner footage, check out this great link from SUPERMAN CINEMA.