Thursday, May 22, 2014

Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut

My review of Superman II covers the behind-the-scenes shenanigans that went into make the followup to the original Superman, so I'll try not to repeat myself too much. Superman II:The Richard Donner Cut (2006) is an attempt to restore director Richard Donner's original version of Superman II. Donner, who directed the original Superman, was supposed to finish the sequel before he was unceremoniously fired and replaced with Richard Lester over creative differences with the film's producers.

This version of the film restores much of the footage Donner shot, dumps substantial portions that Lester filmed, and places different emphasis on different points. It's not a perfect director's cut. Gaps that Donner wasn't able to film back then are filled in with Lester's material. While it fixes some flaws with Lester's version, it creates a few new ones, most notably at the end, but regardless of which version of Superman II you watch, it's hard to be disappointed.

Donner's Cut follows the same plot as Lester's. General Zod and his two underlings, Ursa and Non, escape from the Phantom Zone (where they were imprisoned by Superman's father Jor-El) and fly to Earth, where they discover they have immeasurable power and decide to conquer the planet. Meanwhile, Lois Lane has figured out Superman and Clark Kent are the same person, and Superman, over the objections of Jor-El, decides to give up his powers to be with her.

In a nutshell, Donner streamlines the plot and removes most of the slapstick Lester inserted. In Lester's cut, Zod and company are freed by a terrorist bomb planted at the Eiffel Tower that Superman hurls into space; here, Donner eliminates that entire episode. Instead, it is one of the nuclear missiles launched by Lex Luthor at the end the first movie that Superman diverts that frees the Kryptonian criminals. Comical interludes such as the interaction between the sheriff and his deputy before they encounter Zod's group, Non failing at his attempts to use laser vision, and the guy getting ice cream in his face during the big battle at the end have been excised. The result is a movie that moves quicker, gives its villains more menace, and eliminates the distracting silliness. Also, Gene Hackman probably gives his best outing as Luthor in this version.

Of course, Donner adds previously unseen footage, most notably Marlon Brando as Jor-El, whose character was written out and replaced with Superman's mother after legal and financial disputes between Brando and the producers. This helps strengthen the sequel's ties to the themes and plot of the previous movie and fixes at least one notable plot hole (by explaining how Superman gets his power back). Other additions are minor: when the Kryptonians attack the White House, Zod steals a soldier's gun and kills some people with it, just for the heck of it.

Also notable are the changes to how Lois Lane figures out Superman's identity. Here, it's given more time and support. After she begins to suspect Clark, she draws glasses and a hat on a picture of Superman in the newspaper and then tosses herself out a window for him to save her. Lester's version didn't have the business with the newspaper, and Lois's attempt to force Superman to save her happened at Niagara Falls. The reveal in Lester's film happens when Clark trips onto a fire and emerges unburned. Here, Lois shoots a gun at Clark, only waiting until after he admits he's Superman to tell him it was loaded with blanks. This scene is actually old test footage, but it's strongly written and acted that it doesn't matter.

As I said, there are problems, whether as a result of being what Donner intended all along or because the restored version was limited to what footage was available. The decimation of the small town by the Zod's group feels truncated and choppy, and the film ends with Superman once again resorting to flying to around the world so fast he undoes time. Unlike in the first Superman, he doesn't just undo the climax; he undoes the whole movie. Sure, he's learned his lesson about his responsibilities, but it returns everything else to where it was when the movie started. Plus, it's a recycling of the original movie's ending (reportedly, this was originally only supposed to be the end of the second movie, but it raises the question as to how the first was supposed to conclude).

If nothing, Superman II is an interesting experiment: how do two filmmakers interpret the same material? Lester went for comedy and comic book action. Donner went for epic modern myth. Both work in their own ways, and both have their own flaws. Either way, it's a worthy sequel.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Man of Steel

In my review of Superman III, I complained that the filmmakers weren't taking Superman seriously, turning the series into a joke. Man of Steel (2013) has the opposite problem; it wants to be dark, edgy, and gritty. It wants to be a SERIOUS FILM, not just a comic book movie. It also wants to be cool, and thus, it removes much from the mythos of Superman that which might be considered out-of-date, corny, and/or lame by today's audiences. Unfortunately, in the process, Man of Steel takes away much of what made Superman Superman, and the result is a mostly charmless and empty movie.

Man of Steel, like the original Superman, is an origin story, but it also incorporates some of Superman II, mainly by having General Zod (now played by Michael Shannon) as the villain. We get the business of Krypton being destroyed, Jor-El (Russell Crowe) sending his son to live on Earth among humanity, Lois Lane (Amy Adams), and life on the Kent homestead in Kansas (Ma and Pa Kent are played by Kevin Costner and Diane Lane). Much of the movie depicts Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) traveling the world, trying to fit in and saving lives while he remembers incidents from his childhood and words of wisdom from his father (such nuggets as maybe Clark should have let a bus full of kids drown rather than expose his powers) while trying to figure out his place in the world.

The makers of Man of Steel are a would-be comic book movie dream team. Director Zack Snyder previously made 300 and Watchmen, producer Christopher Nolan directed the hugely successful Dark Knight trilogy, and screenwriter David S. Goyer has written the likes of Batman Begins and Blade. Snyder as a director has shown promise in action and special effects, but I've found his storytelling and characterization superficial. Nolan, whose work I have enjoyed more, brings more intellectual depth to his projects, and I had hoped his presence would reign Snyder in and keep him focused. Instead, Man of Steel actually combines the worst habits of Nolan and Snyder: Nolan's over-reliance on forced exposition and lugubrious theme analysis in place of dialogue and Snyder's overstuffed style-over-substance approach.

In my reviews of the previous Superman movies, I labeled them as fantasy. I label Man of Steel sci-fi, and that's not an oversight. Krypton looks like Pandora from Avatar, Zod and his followers fly space ships and wear suits that look like they belong in Gears of War, Krypton babies growing cases that look like that scene from The Matrix, a black hole forms over a city (is it Metropolis?), people getting blasted by lasers, and there's talk of a genetic codex, terraforming a planet, the effects of gravity and the atmosphere, and of how Earth's sun is younger than Krypton's sun. Superman stories have had their share of sic-fi elements - androids, aliens, other dimensions - but here it feels overly complicated, and it left my brain spinning. All these elements bog what is traditionally a relatively straightforward mythic tale of Earth's defender.

Consider Zod. In Superman II, Zod is a power-hungry megalomaniac. It's enough that he arrives on Earth after escaping the Phantom Zone and decides to rule it after discovering the power he possesses on the planet. Here, Zod has more understandable motives: ensuring the future of Krypton. His methods may be brutal and his followers fanatical, but it's hard not to understand where he's coming from. His scheme involving the genetic codex of Krypton and using his ship to terraform Earth to make it habitable for his people, though, makes things more complicated than they have to be because now we have explain everything about what he's doing, how he's doing it, and why it has to be done a certain way. There's so much technobabble gobbledygook, it's mostly uninteresting.

To distract us from the fact that most of the dialogue is used to convey exposition, Snyder bombards the screen with special effects, action, and explosions. Now instead of succumbing to a heart attack, reminding Superman the limits of his power, Jonathan Kent is killed in a tornado. Instead of catching planes, having trains ride over him, or undoing time, Superman fights the villains in these big, loud action scenes in which they knock each other through buildings, causing an untold amount of collateral damage and civilian casualties in the process. Sure, it looks great, and in a vacuum, it's hard to fault, but it's hard to care about any of it. The straightforward elegance, hope, and fun of the earlier Superman movies has been bled out, replaced by something cold, technical, and chaotic.

Man of Steel also has a rather jarring structure. Like Batman Begins, it traces Superman's origins to degree, showing us the psychological motivations that drive him, but while Nolan's earlier film felt coherent, Snyder's is all over the place without much rhyme or reason. Batman Begins opens with Bruce Wayne being recruited by Ra's Al Ghul. It follows Bruce's progress to the citadel and training, flashes back to his childhood and what drove him to become a crime fighter, returns to the present, and stays on a linear path from there. Man of Steel jumps around all over the place with so many flashbacks to random childhood incidents that you wonder why they even bothered to include them.

The emphasis on the character of Superman is much different this time. In fact, the dual identity aspect is almost completely dropped (it's not even until the very end that Clark goes to work for the Daily Planet), and the focus is on Clark Kent as an outsider. He's referred to as the alien (in fact, the one time he's referred to as Superman, it's laughed at by the characters), people don't trust him and are afraid of him, and he questions how he can fit in. Not to beat a dead horse, it may be more "realistic" that a being of such power would be treated such a way, but it's not nearly as much fun. Cavill is an intense, heroic looking Man of Steel, but he's a brooding, darker, and tortured character, closer to Batman than Superman. Even his outfit is a darker shade of red and blue. Superman is no longer a symbol of truth, justice, and the American way, a guiding example for people looking for a savior; he's just a super-powered fighter and loner.

In Superman II, Superman battled Zod, Ursa, and Non in Metropolis, and he put himself at risk to save people from being caught in the crossfire. At the end, knowing he's outmatched by three equally strong opponents, Superman lures them away to the Fortress of Solitude and uses his wits to defeat them. When he bows before Zod and then crushes his hand, it's a moment of triumph. At the end of Man of Steel, when Superman snaps Zod's neck (albeit to save lives in a rather contrived manner), it is not triumphant or rousing but shocking and grim.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Superman Returns

Superman came out in 1978 and is considered the first modern super hero movie. The series finished its initial run in 1987, with the not-so super Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, and the series went dormant for a while. Despite various efforts from the likes of Tim Burton and Kevin Smith, a Superman movie did not take off in the 90s, and the Man of Steel did not return to the Silver Screen until Superman Returns (2006), directed by Bryan Singer.

Between 1987 and 2006, the super hero genre exploded with the such titles as BatmanTeenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Spider-Man, and even Singer's adaptation of X-Men. Some were darker. Some introduced more flawed, human heroes. The decision any filmmaker must make when making a Superman movie today is whether to stay true to his roots as a paragon of goodness and virtue or to make changes and give him flaws that might make him more relatable. Superman Returns takes what is arguably the bolder choice and strives for the former.

It's been five years since anyone has seen Superman (Brandon Routh), who left to search out the remnants of his home planet Krypton. Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth), now with a young son and living with nice guy Richard White (James Marsden), the nephew Daily Planet editor Perry White (Frank Langella). She's even won the Pullitzer for her article, "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman." Then one day, Superman returns, as does Clark Kent, which oddly enough no one questions. Meanwhile, Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) has gotten out of prison and hatches a scheme to utilize Superman's power crystals to create a new land mass and utilize the Kryptonian technology for his own gain.

Superman Returns strives to return to the mythic, epic quality Richard Donner brought to the first two Superman movies. In age when most blockbusters are dominated by explosions and big action scenes that overwhelm the screen and move at a  breakneck pace, Superman Returns takes its time and is more concerned with character development than action, although it does have its share of that. We spend time on the Kent Farm in Smallville, a return to the Fortress of Solitude, and a tender, romantic flight with Superman carrying Lois.

Stock footage of Marlon Brando as Jo-El is used to continue the previous movies' themes about Superman's place in the world and his responsibility, and Superman Returns continues the idea of creating a legacy by making Superman a father (come on, that can't be a surprise. They might as well have given the kid a sign to wear.) This a thoughtful Superman, the kind of hero who hovers above the world, listening to all the cries he hears for a savior. He's not acting out of a compulsion or for revenge or thrills; he genuinely wants to make the world a better place, a courageous characterization in a modern cinema dominated by irony, post-modernism, and cynicism.

The Batman movies live or die by their villains. Batman, since he's behind a mask and often kept in the shadows, could almost be played by anyone since his presence is more important than his performance.  But the most important role(s) in any Superman movie is Superman/Clark Kent, and in the first four films, through good and bad, Christopher Reeve was there; he brought so much to the table from his voice and mannerisms to how he carried himself and was perfect as both alter egos. Sadly, he never got a chance to exit on a high note from the role that made him famous after a horse-riding accident in 1995 paralyzed him from the neck down, complications from which led to his death in 2004 (though he did make a couple of appearances on Smallville, though obviously not as Superman).

With Superman Returns, the filmmakers made the correct choice by casting an unknown in the part, ensuring that the persona and gossip of a big star didn't overshadow any performance (for an idea of how badly this could have gone, imagine Nicolas Cage, who was cast in an aborted 90s movie). Unfortunately, I have trouble seeing anyone other than Reeve in the part and found Routh to be disappointing. With Reeve, you could almost believe Clark Kent and Superman were really two separate people; he could heroic, funny, charming, intense, romantic. Routh isn't really any of these; he's just kind of there, fulfilling the functions of the plot but without the humanity Reeve brought, and his attempts to differentiate Superman and Clark Kent aren't very effective (It's really astounding no one clues in). It's a big hole for the movie to overcome.

Spacey as Luthor is fun and menacing if a bit more subdued than Gene Hackman (whose performance has kind of grown on me), though his scheme is a variation of his in the first Superman, right down to his wanting beach-front property. Thankfully, he's bald as Luthor should be and stripped away of goofy, campy sidekicks. Bosworth is ok, but nothing really to write home about, and all the playful banter Margot Kidder had with Christopher Reeve is gone since Lois is still upset about Superman bolting without saying goodbye.  Langella is wasted as Perry White, nor is he as much fun as Jackie Cooper (who was the J.K. Simmons of the Reeve series).

The special effects are top notch; Superman's return to action involving a crashing jet liner works tremendously well and is probably the best action scene. Even the CGI and other modern updates, such as how Superman's X-Ray vision and his super hearing, add value without overwhelming the screen and drawing attention to themselves. Singer brings first-rate touch production design to the movie and even brings back John Williams' iconic score. Like Donner, he is treating the movie with respect and trying to build a modern myth.

It would have been nice if Singer had gotten another shot at the Man of Steel since he seems to understand and appreciate it for what it is. Perhaps Routh could have grown into the role and found a way to make it his own. Unfortunately, the response to Superman Returns resulted in a completely darker and grittier reboot from the team of Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan that tried to turn the series into another Batman. But for one fleeting moment, there was hope.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Superman IV: The Quest for Peace

I'm not mad; I'm just disappointed. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987) is a bad movie, make no mistake about it, but it doesn't infuriate me the way Superman III does. Unlike its predecessor, Superman IV makes a good-faith effort to return to the themes and tone of the earlier entries, to take things seriously again and not reduce them to a cheap comic level. It fails but not for lack of trying. I don't hate the movie; I feel sorry for it.

The Daily Planet has been bought out by a slimy media tycoon who puts his daughter Lacy (Mariel Hemingway) in charge. The paper soon publishes and sensationalizes a letter from a little boy who asks Superman (Christopher Reeve, who receives a story credit) to stop the Arms Race between the United States and the Soviet Union by ridding the world of nuclear weapons. Superman hesitates but then decides to do so, and Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) decides to use the void to make a power play. Using a piece of Superman's hair that he attaches a nuke thrown into the sun, Luthor creates Nuclear Man (Mark Pillow) a being powered by the sun with a mission to destroy Superman.

Superman IV raises an interesting question: where does Superman draw the line between helping and interfering with human affairs? In the original Superman, Jor-El tells his son, "They (people of Earth) can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you... my only son." Superman is the example we as humans should strive to be; he is a beacon of all that is good and can be good, and we could achieve great things if only we more like him. Superman is not just a super hero; he's a symbol for good.

But does that mean he should dictate how we live our lives? Should he challenge those governments whose actions he disagrees with? When questioning how to respond to the boy's letter, Superman turns to the ancient elders of Krypton for answers, and he is told, "If you teach the Earth to put its fate in any one man, even yourself, you're teaching them to be betrayed." Yet, Superman resolves to rid the world of nukes, and even though his intentions are pure and he believes he is doing the right thing, it creates an opening for the evil Luthor.

Unfortunately, the movie around this idea is terrible. The special effects look cheap (the wires are visible in a number of spots, the blue screen work is awful, and the same shot of Superman flying straight at the camera is used over and over again), Nuclear Man is a hilariously lame villain (every time he shows up in front of people he does this over-the-top bellow that I was laughing at every time, his voice is dubbed by Hackman, and his ability to grow longer fingernails reminds of Meg Griffin),  and the movie feels incomplete as a number of plot threads either aren't supported or don't go anywhere (reportedly 40 minutes of footage was cut out prior to release, and at 90 minutes, this is the shortest of the Reeve Superman movies). Plus, it can't resist some idiotic decisions, such as the inclusion of Lex Luthor's teenage nephew Lenny (Jon Cryer).

There are also some Ed Wood-level logic gaps. Superman makes a speech to the UN about how he plans to eliminate the world's nukes, and there's a huge round of applause, and no country seems to give him any problem as he takes and destroys millions of dollars worth of military hardware. Near the end, Nuclear Man becomes obsessed with Lacy for some reason, so he kidnaps and flies her into space, where somehow she survives being in the cold vacuum, not to mention passing through the atmosphere without being incinerated. The fights between the super powered being are so lethargic, shot mostly in slow motion, and they pale in comparison to the fight between Superman and Zod and company. Even the Superman's feats - saving a Cosmonaut from drifting into space, catching a missile - just feel small scale and less heroic than what he pulled off in the previous movies and are just straightforward without much tension or sense of awe. They just kind of happen.

Reeve, God bless him, is still out there, trying to sell it, trying to keep the movie dignified, but it's too much for any one man, even Superman. Superman IV is a whimper, a sad end to a series that had started out so gloriously.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Superman III

How much of a step down in quality from Superman and Superman II is Superman III (1983)? I'm going to reference my review of Good Burger.

In that post, I described Ed, the main character, as "one of the most un-endearing, painfully unfunny 'wacky' characters I've ever seen in a movie. Everything he does or says is painfully telegraphed to the most moronic of punchlines and slapstick ... Everything involving Ed is painfully unfunny or horribly contrived." In Ed's defense, he's at least in a stupid kid's comedy, where that kind of character can potentially be funny. The same cannot be said for the inclusion of Richard Pryor in what at the time was the premier super hero movie franchise.

I've seen bad movies, and to be honest, I've seen movies worse than Superman III. From a technical standpoint, the special effects are still pretty convincing, the underlying concept of Superman battling his own dark side is interesting, and Christopher Reeve is still tremendous as both the Man of the Steel and mild-mannered Clark Kent. But Pryor's presence and performance, along with an overall shift in tone by director Richard Lester (now fully in control without any influence by Richard Donner), scuttles all the good will and transforms what had been a grand, epic, and sincere series into a joke and a disgrace.

Pryor plays Gus Gorman, an unemployed loser who becomes a computer programmer and tries to embezzle his boss, Baseketball (Robert Vaughn). Ok, the villain's name is not Baseketball, but I don't care; I'm going to refer to him as Baseketball for the duration of this review. Baseketball decides to use Gus's computer skills to first destroy Columbia's coffee supply and then control the world oil market. How?  Computers that's how, you can control every piece of electronic hardware as well as a satellite from any computer, didn't you know? Knowing Superman is a threat to his schemes, Baseketball has Gus synthesize kryptonite to kill him, but because the composition is not entirely accurate, the kryptonite corrupts Superman into an evil version of himself, leaving the world in shock and wondering what has happened to the Man of Steel.

The frustrating thing is that with a little tinkering, Superman III could have featured Brainiac as the main villain. I can believe an alien android taking over the world's computer systems, using them to create havoc and a type of kryptonite to make Superman go bad. I can't believe Richard Pryor is able to do that. Alas, Brainiac, one of Superman's top villains, has yet to grace a live-action movie. 

I suppose the movie would be merely misguided if Pryor at least provided laughs and was entertaining, but I couldn't stand him. Few things are as unpleasant as watching someone try but fail to be funny, and Pryor with his eyes bugged out and talking a mile-a-minute made me want to punch him and scream "Shut Up!" His antics and scenes get as much time as Superman's, and that's uncalled for. Instead of advancing the plot or exploring the Superman mythos, we're treated to unfunny slapstick and schtick. Every time Pryor comes on screen, the movie stops dead.

True, the previous Superman movies had humor but not at the expense of the story and never this ridiculous or illogical. It's fun to watch the interaction between Clark Kent and Lois Lane since every line is a double entendre because of Clark's secret identity, but watching Pryor put on a pink table cloth to re-enact Superman's heroics (That's right. I don't want to see Superman in action. I want to watch Richard Pryor reenact it and then ski off a building because he's an idiot.) or show up in military regalia to talk like General Patton is frankly embarrassing.

All the slapstick and forced humor keep the plot from every taking off,  but even the plot betrays one of the core themes of the series. In Superman II, Superman gave up his powers for Lois Lane because he loved her so much, but eventually, he recognized he had a greater responsibility and knew he could not be with her. Lois only appears briefly at the beginning and end of the movie (because Margot Kidder spoke out in defense of Richard Donner), and the new love interest is Clark's Smallville crush Lana Lang (Annette O'Toole, who played Martha Kent on the show Smallville). She's appealing and nice, but why is Clark romancing her if he knows he can never be with her? What about Lois, his true love that he was willing to become a man for?

Vaughn has some fun as the villain, but he's basically a fill-in for Gene Hackman's Lex Luthor. The movie also miscalculates with an action scene in which Vaughn's missiles are launched against an incoming Superman. That could have been an exciting set piece as Superman weaves in and out of the line of fire and dodges the projectiles, but for some reason, the scene plays out mostly on a video game screen and is a literally a cartoon.

The best element of the movie is when Superman becomes corrupted by the synthetic kryptonite. Again, Reeve is great, proving the only consistent strength of the series, and he gets to have some malicious fun when he goes bad. Some of it's a bit goofy - straightening out the Leaning Tower of Pisa, blowing out the Olympic Torch - but it works. When Superman is drunk at a bar and flinging peanuts into a mirror, he feels like someone who really has become bad, and it's shocking. The fight between the two halves, good Clark and evil Superman, is very likely the best part of the movie. It demonstrates the ingredients for a great Superman story were there, they were there for the taking. 

It's frustrating. Such a golden opportunity squandered. Yes, Superman is a comic-book figure, but the filmmakers placed too much emphasis on the comic aspect of the phrase. If it was actually funny, it might have been forgivable. It's not funny, so it's terrible.

Superman II

For a movie about such morally a straight and upright character, Superman II (1980) had quite a convoluted backstory. Originally, the first two Superman movies were to be filmed back-to-back by director Richard Donner, but budget overruns and scheduling concerns forced the filmmakers to focus on first finishing Superman. A conflict between Donner and the producers, Alexander and Ilya Salkind, resulted in Donner being fired and replaced with Richard Lester, and a good portion of the footage Donner had filmed for Superman II was re-shot. Marlon Brando, who played Jor-El in the original, sued the Salkinds, over profits from the first film, and his footage was subsequently dropped; Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor refused to return for reshoots; and Margot Kidder spoke out publicly in support of Donner (but her punishment is a story for Superman III).

With all this backstage drama, it's something of a miracle that the first sequel to Superman turned out as well as it did, and for the most part, it maintains the thematic and narrative continuity established by its predecessor. While the emphasis is more on action this time, Superman II benefits immensely from a strong emotional arc for the Man of the Steel as well as a much stronger villain for him to contend with.

After briefly recapping the first movie, Superman II picks up with Superman (Christopher Reeve) defusing a hostage situation at the Eiffel Tower by carrying a terrorist bomb into outer space. However, when the bomb detonates, it cracks open the Phantom Zone, releasing three Kryptonian criminals: Non (Jack O'Halloran), Ursa (Sarah Douglas), and General Zod (Terence Stamp), who swore revenge when Superman's father Jor-El imprisoned them. The trio, just as powerful as Superman, head to Earth. At the same time, Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) has finally learned Superman and Clark Kent are the same person, and Superman decides to sacrifice his powers to be with her.

I used to be one of those people who didn't think Superman was that interesting of a super hero, that he was just bland do-gooder with too much power to ever really be challenged, but there's more to him than the cape and good deeds. Superman II really understands his existential dilemma: he is the most powerful being on the planet, the defender of humanity, and an example of good for people to aspire to, but he can never be one of them. Since the only way to join the human race is to give up his powers, he must remain an outsider, and while he would do it for a noble reason - his love for Lois Lane - it would also be selfish because it would also mean forsaking his responsibility and purpose, leaving the world vulnerable to threats such as Zod and his minions.

Zod is such a great villain, and he's wonderfully realized by Stamp, who plays him as very arrogant and ruthless; he's over the top, but it works. Lex Luthor (once again played by Gene Hackman, though he's not given a lot to do in this cut) might have brains, but Zod has the strength to challenge Superman and dominate Earth. His underlings, Ursa and Non, are also quite memorable with Ursa as a cold-blood female equivalent of Zod and Non the mute muscle. The knockout brawl between the three and Superman in Metropolis is wonderfully realized: exciting, intense, with good special effects as they lift buses and radio towers to use as weapons. The final confrontation in the Fortress of Solitude, in which Superman knows he's outmatched and must outthink his opponents, is also well realized.

Of course, there are issues. Lester, best known for his comedies such as A Hard Day's Night, can't resist a cheap joke in the middle of otherwise serious scenes. The battle in Metropolis is awesome, but did it really need the guy getting an ice cream cone blown in his face, the man talking in the phone booth after its knocked over, and the guy in roller skates? It's distracting. It's not too big of a problem here, but by Superman III, this lack of respect for the material would send the franchise into a tailspin. Also, the amnesia-inducing kiss at the end: lame.

Reeve is still phenomenal in the duel as the two alter egos of Kal-El. He imbues Superman with the right amount of heroic sincerity and Kent with the right amount of klutziness that you can really believe they're two different people. He carried this franchise on his back. It wouldn't have worked with anyone else.

The first Superma film strived to be modern myth; it moved slower, took its time, and treated its source material with reverence. Superman II strives and succeeds as a comic book movie. There's more action, more super-powered beings, more jokes, and it moves a lot quicker, but it remains a most worthy sequel. When that John Williams theme plays, it's hard not to be excited.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Jack's Wife

There are three titles for the third movie directed by George Romero. It was filmed as Jack's Wife, re-titled as Hungry Wives when it came out in 1972, and renamed yet again to Season of the Witch when it received a re-release in the early 80s to cash in on Romero's success with Dawn of the Dead and Creepshow. Personally, I prefer Jack's Wife; Hungry Wives sounds like a porno while Season of the Witch promises much more horror than the film intends on delivering.

Jack's Wife shares a kinship with two other Romero movies: Martin and Bruiser. Martin is the story of a young man who may or may not be a vampire. Bruiser is the story of a man whose face may or may not have been replaced by a featureless white mask. Jack's Wife is the story of a woman who may or may not be a witch. All three of these films are about individual identity and the social forces that shape a person's reality. In the case of Jack's Wife, those themes center on middle class suburbia and the then-burgeoning feminist movement.

Joan Mitchell (Jan White) is a bored, unhappy suburban housewife. Her husband Jack (Bill Thunhurst) pretty much ignores her since he's always away on business trips, her daughter Nikki (Joedda McClain) doesn't have much use for her, and Joan is plagued by bad dreams that symbolize aspects of her unfulfilling life (in one, her husband leaves her in a dog kennel. Subtle, huh?). At a party, she becomes intrigued when she learns a neighborhood woman is a practicing witch. Soon after, Joan starts to explore witchcraft herself and for the first time in a long while, finds purpose and fulfillment, but the line between fantasy and reality begins to blur as Joan's nightmares become haunted by a mysterious masked figure.

Jack's Wife is a fascinating movie to discuss and analyze from a character and narrative perspective. More melodrama than horror, the film is an examination of how Joan feels unfulfilled and how she tries to find something to give her meaning, and that something just happens to be witchcraft. Her identity is tied to being a wife and mother, and with neither husband nor daughter offering her validation in either role, Joan finds something else to define her and give her purpose. With the witchcraft comes that direction and a new sense of freedom.

The horror elements of the movie are rather minimal. The nightmares are freaky, but most of the time, we follow Joan and explore her life and all the different ways she feels stifled. It's a rather talky picture, with Joan and company often sitting around and talking in static living rooms over drinks. If you expect Joan to don a witch's cap and ride a broom, you're in the wrong movie (for an example of a ghoulish witch, watch the Romero-scripted pilot for Tales from the Darkside, "Trick or Treat).

Whether Joan actually performs any real magic or is in touch with the supernatural is up for debate. For example, she casts a spell to seduce her daughter's college professor boyfriend (Raymond Laine); it doesn't seem to work, so she calls him on the phone, and he comes right over. Would he have come over anyway? It's possible the spell might have played a part or perhaps it just gave Joan the confidence to approach him. Hard to say. If it is just the power of the suggestion, that doesn't explain some dreams that seem to predict the future.

Romero also has some sly fun mixing the gothic and the mundane.  Sure, we get the candles and the pricked fingers and the arcane rituals, but they're conducted in banal middle-class houses. When Joan goes shopping for witches supplies, she pays with a credit card, and the real idea of black magic is treated by most of the characters as something of the latest counter-cultural fad. Joan even buys a primer for how to be witch, and instead of being some ancient tome, it's like any other book, available at the local book store.

Narrative-wise and character-wise, Jack's Wife is rich. From a visual and filmmaking standpoint, unfortunately, it's crude and amateurish. It's drab to look at. The pace drags, many scenes go on too long, and the editing is haphazard and jarring; there are very few establishing shots when a scene begins to acclimate the viewer, and the transitions between scenes are mostly nonexistent. This is particularly a problem with the dream sequences; they don't feel weird enough. In Martin, Romero intercut black-and-white period footage to suggest either twisted fantasies or memories of the main character  as he stalked his victims, as well as a dream-like, disembodied voice calling to him, but here, there's nothing that sophisticated. The entire technique of the movie just feels crude.

As much as I enjoy talking about Jack's Wife, I have to admit it is something of a chore to sit through. If you're a Romero completist, there's much to recognize and discuss, but it didn't leave me moved in any particular way and is kind of dull. Romero has said in interviews it's the one movie of his he'd like to remake, and maybe that's not such a bad idea. Maybe with the experience he's gained since then, he could conjure up something truly special.