Thursday, June 27, 2013

Movie Review: "Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut" by David Pretty

Even before a single frame of the first two Superman movies were shot, producers Pierre Spengler and Ilya and Alexander Salkind found themselves behind the eight-ball.  Their original choice for director, Guy Hamilton, had to bow out when the production moved to his native England, where he was exiled from for tax evasion.  The Salkinds then courted Richard Donner for the job after seeing his expert work in The Omen.  

Richard Donner's experience working on the first two Superman films would go on to become a classic cautionary tale of Hollywood bean counters vs. visionary artists.  Since the first two movies were supposed to be shot simultaneously, Donner quickly found himself overwhelmed by time constraints.  He had only three months in which to cast the film, hire a crew, lock down a budget, complete the pre-visual work, construct the sets, revise two epic scripts and still figure out how to do a decent flying effect.

As soon as principal photography began things quickly went from bad to worse.  Despite the slap-dash manner in which he was asked to do things, Donner was hell-bent on delivering a respectfully epic picture that just so happened to include a guy flying around in tights.  The Salkinds, on the other hand, were already in debt up to their eyeballs and wanted the production to wrap up as soon as humanly possible.

The presence of Marlon Brando became a particular bone of contention.  Although the Salkinds had sought out the legendary actor for the role of Jor-El in order to entice potential investors, they quickly soured on the rich deal they'd made to secure him.  When they ordered Donner to eliminate Brando from Superman II for budgetary reasons, the director suddenly found himself mediating a major dispute whilst trying to finish the picture.  Rumor has it that Donner showed up on set every day expecting to get fired.  Mercifully, when a hastily-assembled test reel of footage was shown to the Warner Brothers executives he managed to earn himself a stay of execution.

By that time, the Salkind's couldn't even bring themselves to be in the same room as Donner so they hired another film-maker named Richard Lester to speak on their behalf.  Although Lester has justifiably come under fire for his Quisling-like role in this saga, he did make one wise suggestion: concentrate on finishing the first film in order to bankroll the second.  Even in retrospect, this was no guarantee of success.  If Superman the Movie tanked at the box office, then the footage for three-quarters of a sequel would end up rotting in film cans, never to see the light of day.

This strategy also resulted in an unwelcome change to the climax of first film.  In the original script, the Man of Steel directs one of Lex Luthor's errant nuclear missiles into space where it destroys the Phantom Zone and releases the super-criminals Zod, Non and Ursa from captivity.  In essence, this was supposed to be a cliff-hanger which would lead to an already-completed sequel just waiting in the wings.

But since the possibility of a follow-up was now in doubt, Donner quickly reasoned:  "If Superman is a success, they're going to do a sequel.  If it ain't a success, a cliffhanger ain't gonna bring them to see Superman II."

So things were altered to the now-contentious finale in which Superman uses his powers to spin the Earth back in time to reverse the damage caused by Lex's evil plot.  I always thought this conclusion, and the last reel of Superman II, to be extremely odd, and I now I know why.  The ending of the first film was supposed to be the ending for the second film!

Of course, we all know now that Superman: The Movie was an instant smash hit when it was released on December 15'th 1978.  In spite of (or because of) the ample box-office returns, lawsuits started flying like spitballs.  When Donner and Brando teamed up to sue the Salkinds over profit point residuals, this effectively destroyed what remained of their working relationship.  So, in early 1979, the Salkinds sent Donner his pink slip.

The rancor continued to grow after the Salkinds chose their lapdog Richard Lester to complete Superman II, a move that Richard Donner still considers to be a rank betrayal.  In order for Lester to earn a legitimate directing credit, over half the film's footage had to be re-shot.  As such, large chunks of the original film were abandoned.  Regardless of how cheesy this sounds, Lester finished the movie just as the Salkind's had requested: cheap, efficiently and without any creative objections.

As a ten year old kid I loved the original 1980 theatrical release of Superman II.  It had plenty of humor, whiz-bang action and flashy special effects.  But as I got older I began to realize how much better the first film is in comparison.  When Donner's aborted version of the film was finally made available back in 2006, my curiosity was officially piqued.

Unfortunately, watching Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut just gives me a sad-on.  It's less a complete film and more of a speculative exercise.  With thirty years gone by and no major studio willing to bankroll a proper re-release, this version essentially boils down to wishful thinking.  In order to make the story flow properly, some el cheapo CGI had to shoe-horned into the film.  Donner also had to rely on some screen test footage that completely flies in the face of visual continuity.

Having said that, this is still a better film than Richard Lester's theatrical abomination.  The plot holes centered around Superman's mutable powers are gone.  The inappropriate and drama-siphoning slapstick humor has been eliminated.  Superman's bizarre use of a giant plastic "S" to ensnare Non in the climactic Fortress of Solitude showdown has been excised.  And, most notably, the notorious "super-kiss" used to erase Lois's memory has mercifully been jettisoned.

Instead we get a lot of great new scenery-chewing moments with Terrance "Kneel before Zod!" Stamp.  Lois is more "Lois-like": nosy, brash, intuitive and unwilling to leave well-enough alone.  There's also a lot more of Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor, who's role was curtailed after he vocally protested Donner's dismissal.  He gets so many more opportunities to twist and scheme here, it's great.

But it's the priceless scenes of Brando and Christopher Reeve together that really resonate with me.  Finally Clark's ability to recover his super-powers is properly explained.  There's also a hefty toll to be paid for Superman's oversight and we get the sense that he's forever altered by these events.  Reeve's performance in these lost scenes is fantastic and it's sad that he died two years before this became available to the fans. 

My only gripe with this edit is discovering that the "time reversal" solution was always a part of the equation.  Although it's far better suited to this film than the first, it's still a tremendous cheat that undermines and cheapens what came before it, regardless of which film it was intended to cap.  On the flip side, I suppose to would have made for an epically suitably end to this sprawling saga. 

All in all, it's a shame that it took so long for all the bad karma to blow over and bring this to fruition.  Far too many ships have sailed.  Although this partial restoration is nothing more then a cobbled-together, incomplete curiosity, but it's pretty compelling stuff.  In fact, Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut is a must-see piece of evidence as to why commerce and art make for oft-incompatible bedfellows.

     Tilt: up.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Movie Review: "Superman the Movie" by David Pretty

Twenty years before Bryan Singer's X-Men reminded us all that a comic book movie didn't have to be campy, childish brain candy, director Richard Donner proved that a man could fly.  Indeed, for most kids of the late Seventies/early Eighties the world's greatest heroes at the time were Mark Hamill's Luke Skywalker and Christopher Reeve's Superman.  It was a great time to be a kid.  Innocence was still an admirable quality and cynicism was mercifully rare.     

Although Superman clocks in at a hefty two-hours and thirty-three minutes, it's not the movie's run time that makes it epic.  It has much more to do with the radically different eras and environments that the characters are sustained throughout.  This is further highlighted by a distinct shift in tone and mood that accompanies each transition.  Just by employing this age-old storytelling technique, the movie quickly starts to feel mythic in scope.

Director Richard Donner and his horde of screenwriters (including Godfather scribe Mario Puzo) give us a veritable checklist of what to expect from a Superman movie.  We get a glimpse of life on Krypton as Jor-El (Marlon Brando) begs the council of elders to heed his warning about the imminent destruction of the planet.  The crystalline and vaguely antiseptic production design is a perfect fit for this sequence, suggesting a culture that is considerably more erudite and advanced then our own.

When Jor-El sends his son packing off to earth we get the first major transition on the film.  From the moment Kal-El climbs out of that impact crater and is promptly adopted by Johnathan (Glenn Ford) and Martha (Phyllis Thaxter) Kent, Donner starts piling on the Americana.  The azure sky, sea of corn, endless dirt roads, speeding locomotives, 50's era farmhouses, and High School football games all feel like a living Norman Rockwell painting.  Coupled with a respectful awareness of comic book lore, the artistry on display here really elevates Superman from stock funnybook character to American icon. 

The third and final movement of this grand pop-culture opera occurs when the adult Clark leaves Smallville for the bustling city of Manhattan, er...Metropolis.  To keep tabs on where he's needed, Clark poses as a mild-mannered reporter for The Daily Planet.  Entrenched in this crime-ridden concrete jungle, Superman becomes the guardian of humanity, a lone white knight in a cold and harsh environment.  In spite of all the gory bylines, armed muggings and rude treatment, Clark's purity and goodness remains immutable.

Although this is achieved on the scripted page to a certain extent, the Juilliard-trained Christopher Reeve brings Clark Kent and Superman to life as never before.  Indeed, Reeve's take on the role was so indelible that he never quite managed to distance himself from it.  The first time he takes flight as Superman amidst the rousing strains of John William's chill-inducing score, it's an immediate slam dunk.  What's even more remarkable is that his take on Clark Kent is just as engaging.

As stalwart as Superman is, he's still fortified by his comic book allies, including Perry "Don't Call Me Chief!" White (embodied with chutzpa by Jackie Cooper), cub reporter Jimmy Olsen (played to "Gee-whiz" perfection by Marc McClure) and aggressive, snoopy Lois Lane (a note-perfect Margot Kidder).  The amount of reverence and respect that Donner invests in these characters and their world strikes the perfect balance between comic book fantasy and our own familiar reality.

The non-existent love-triangle between Clark, Superman and Lois comes together beautifully.  Margot Kidder's performance here is inspired; around Clark she's hard-edged and aloof but whenever the Man of Steel is present she's goofy and girlish.  After a memorable interview segment rife with sexual tension the two share a late night flight together in a scene that's come to embody the concept of "movie magic".    

Even though Lex Luthor is devoid of an origin story and his motivation boils down to showcasing his skills as a criminal mastermind, Gene Hackman definitely makes his presence felt.  His banter with Ned Beatty's Otis and Valerie Perrine's Miss Teschmacher is worth the price of admission alone.  Purists might balk at the liberties taken with the character but Hackman is just so gleefully cocky, obnoxious and craven that he quickly becomes the guy you love to hate. 

When Superman shrugs off Luthor's trials and bursts into his underground lair, the resulting confrontation is infinitely more interesting than two guys pounding the crap outta one another.  There's threat, menace, deception and an unexpected reversal of fortune.  The only place where the film stumbles is in the cheap retcon of Lex's scheme, which still leaves me feeling kinda hoodwinked.

Even though most of the film's special effects have held up quite well, there are a few visuals that aren't in step with the film's mythic overtones.  Although most of Reeve's wire work is still excellent, many of the matte shots look pretty rickety.  This shouldn't come as a surprise since daylight bluescreen effects were still in their infancy back then.  And while the Golden Gate bridge sequence is still solid, the super-powered avalanche at the very end of the film looks like someone rolled a bunch of pebbles down on top of an HO-scale model train set.

But, hey, I'm dwelling on minutia now.  For every questionable choice there are ten triumphs that overshadow it.  If you want an example of a real epic film, this is it.  Thanks to some superb casting and a smart, reverential script, Richard Donner took a dime store concept and turned in a truly magical film that has yet to be replicated.  Even after thirty five years, Superman the Movie is still the gold standard upon which all other superhero films should be judged.

Tilt: up.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Movie Review: "Star Trek Into Darkness" by David Pretty

"Space: the final frontier.  These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise.  Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before."  

After subjecting viewers to one big, dumb action sequence after another, Into Darkness scribes Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof actually have the balls to evoke these rousing words as if apologizing for what's just transpired.  If J.J. Abrams and company have even a shred of integrity they'll pay more then just lip service to Gene Roddenberry's original series mission statement next time out.  Honestly, I was lot more interested in the last five minutes of this film verses the two hours of vicious, unrelenting violence that proceeded it.

I was willing to forgive the vapidity of its 2009 predecessor, which had the unenviable task of getting all of those iconic asses into their respective seats.  I can also understand why the writers would feel paranoid about audience attention spans when a film's function is so workmanlike.  But with all of those obligatory bits now firmly locked in place, I really thought that this movie would be a bold, original, thought-provoking adventure that embodied the spirit of the original Trek while blasting off into exciting new frontiers.

Yeah, I was wrong.

As soon as the film kick-starts with a brain dead Indiana Jones/James Bond-style grabber sequence I knew I was dead wrong.  Brash, headstrong James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) thumbs his nose at the Federation's Prime Directive of non-interference to save a primitive culture from a deadly volcanic eruption.  For some reason, this required the endangerment of his entire crew and his beloved ship.  Then, in what feels like an outtake from a Micheal Bay flick, we get a demo of the Enterprise's previously unseen submarine option, bringing to mind the Lotus Esprit from The Spy Who Loved Me.

When honest-to-a-fault Spock (Zachary Quinto) files a frank report on the incident, Kirk is immediately stripped of his command.  A grim reprieve arrives in the form of a rogue Starfleet operative named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) who manages to blow up a top-secret installation and murder most of the Federation's inner sanctum.  The oblique Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) promptly re-instates Kirk and orders him to locate and kill the rogue terrorist.

Kirk's willingness to carry out this clandestine hit immediately puts him at odds with his crew.  Scotty (Simon Pegg) resigns his commission after he's forbidden to inspect the seventy-two (!) experimental photon torpedoes which are destined for Harrison's face.  When Spock, Bones and Uhura all point out that anonymous, Black Ops-style assassinations are not really the Starfleet way, Kirk finally comes to his senses and agrees to capture the renegade instead of kill him.

But as soon as the fugitive is brought onboard and starts talking things start to get complicated.  To reveal any more would be skirting dangerously close to the Spoiler Zone so I'll edge away from that particular precipice at full impulse power.              

Although The Wrath of Khan is still my favorite Trek flick, it's times like this when I curse its existence. Why?  Because in a vain effort to replicate Nick Meyer's bottle lightning, we've gotten a slew of mediocre copycat films that aren't nearly as effective.  Into Darkness goes so far it could almost be classified as a friggin' remake.

This is baffling to me.  Abrams was given carte blanche to reboot Star Trek any way he wanted and instead of boldly going where no director has gone before, he decided to re-hash the same time travel plots and villains that we've already seen before.  To make matters worse, this was probably done for purely cynical reasons.  Cramming the film with things that worked once before improves the odds for a return on net assets.  Especially when all of those time-tested ingredients are cranked up to WARP SPEED in order to appeal to the average movie goer with the attention span of a marmoset.

But perhaps the most frustrating thing: just like the first film, Into Darkness is a well-honed, creatively-kinetic thrill ride that doesn't let up for a second.  The special effects are impeccable and the action set pieces are both varied and exhilarating.  The drone attack sequence is vicious, the raid on Kronos is intense, the zero-gee space leap is harrowing and the Enterprise gravity spiral evokes shades of Titanic.  Pity, then, that the connective tissue holding all of this together feels like an afterthought.

Indeed, the plot here makes the first film look like The Usual Suspects.  Large swaths of the script are lifted from previous Trek incarnations and what's new barely makes any sense.  For example, Scotty gets heaved off the ship to facilitate the same surprise sabotage job he did in Star Trek III.  Indicative of the reboot's cro-magnon leanings, Dr. Carol Marcus, a brilliant molecular biologist in Wrath of Khan, gets reincarnated as a sexy weapons expert with a penchant for dropping her miniskirt.

Want more examples of the script's idiocies?  I know that Harrison is supposed to be a super-genius, but that was three hundred years ago.  Given how quickly technology moves, his ability to create super-weapons would be like Daniel Bernoulli whipping up an iPad.  An obligatory appearance by Leonard Nimoy as Spock Prime is equally ham-fisted.  Just seconds after telling his alternate younger self that he can't interfere, he proceeds to drop more spoilers then the "Geek" tab on Pintrest.

I'm convinced that the multitude of torpedo-related fake outs is deliberately convoluted, ensuring that the audience doesn't think about it too much.  The debate about the weapon's unique payload and who put it there eventually begins to feel like an Abbot and Costello routine.  I also love how Kirk doesn't blink an eye when he's asked to take along seventy-two torpedoes to use against Harrison.  Wouldn't he think that was a tad overkillish?  Especially when fired at a planet that's on the verge of declaring war on the Federation?  Seriously, is anyone buying this shit? 

When the film isn't lifting from previous Star Trek cannon it's 'yoinking' ideas from every other movie ever made.  When are people going to learn that it's never a lucky break when a super-villain voluntarily surrenders?  Cripes, we've seen this countless times lately in films like The Avengers and Skyfall.  We've also seen the Enterprise burn up on re-entry about one hojillion times.  In a related point, how did both ships get pulled into Earth's atmosphere so quickly?  Where did they drop out of warp?  The friggin' thermoshere?  

But the film's most overtly stupid move is attributing cross-species, resurrectional powers to Harrison's hemoglobin.  Why Starfleet doesn't hook him and his cohorts up to twenty-four gallon blood bags is beyond me.  Mortality has always been an interesting aspect of the Star Trek universe.  Even though technology has given human beings the ability to jet all over the known galaxy, they remain inherently squishy and death is still a significant risk.  Although it wouldn't help someone killed by a warp core breech, just think how many red shirts from the original series would be right back on duty after a shot of this miraculous new script convenience?

Once again the cast can't be slighted.  Chris Pine isn't nearly as spastic and hyperkinetic this time out.  Having said that, Kirk experiences the exact same lessons concerning responsibility and self-sacrifice that he picked up in the first film.  The same goes for Zachary Quinto's Spock, who learns, once again, that it's okay to express emotions at appropriate times and act on instinct when needed.  Honestly, it's like building up a video game character only to have them stripped of all their skill points in the sequel.

But this is bound to happen when your main characters are pop culture icons.  After seventy-nine hour-long episodes and six motion pictures, we already know how Kirk, Spock and company will react in most situations.  Although I wasn't expecting any major character revelations, I was certainly hoping for more then just caricatures of their original personalities.  For example, Quinto's Spock is more angry, sour and emo then Nimoy's cool portrayal.  And, by rights, Chris Pine's Kirk should either be permanently banned from Starfleet or dead from Space Herpes.

Karl Urban's Leonard "Bones" McCoy continues to be one of the best things about the reboot, but his excellent showing is undermined by Abram's obsession with audience expectations.  This time out he's forced to utter not one but two "I'm a doctor not a ____" lines.  Every time there's a dilemma in the script, McCoy's sole function is to pop up and nay-say Kirk's current line of action.  Although this often happened in the original series as well, there's no time for debate here and their conflict comes off as obligatory.

I'm not sure who Simon Pegg had to fellate in order to score the Chekov / Wrath of Khan side-plot here, but I can't think of anyone more deserving.  Not only are Scotty's actions relevant to the story, he's the only character to voice the audience's concern over Kirk's mindless blood-lust.  Although he's essentially repeating Jimmy Doohan's sabotage job in Trek III, Pegg's boundless wit and irascibility helps to keep things fresh.  Even as he's sprinting the full length of a dreadnought's cargo hold, he manages to inject some badly-needed comic relief into an otherwise turgid script.  

Despite the fact that this is clearly an ensemble flick, Zoe Saladana manages to eke out some territory for herself.  In addition to exploring her understandably-rocky, Twilight Zone-like relationship with Spock, she also exhibits her xenolinguistics skills by negotiating, albeit unsucessfully, with the klingons.  Although her performance essentially boils down to either "pissed off" or "worried", she certainly fares better then some of her co-stars.

Speaking of John Cho and Anton Yelchin, since their characters aren't integral to the plot their roles are perfunctory at best.  All Cho gets to do as Sulu is pilot a shuttle at the start of the film and deliver a few badass lines of dialogue while sitting in the captain's chair.  In a desperate bid to give Chekov something to do, the young navigator inexplicably replaces Scotty in Engineering.  Unfortunately this just translates into Yelchin running around a steam-choked engine room while screaming utilitarian dialogue into a communicator.

Benedict Cumberbatch is great as the movie's heavy.  He's commanding, vicious and genuinely committed to Harrison's mission.  In fact, his performance almost elevates this sub-par material into something substantial.  Cumberbatch eschews a florid and theatrical take on the role for something more sinister, unhinged and Hannibal Lecter-esque.  Unfortunately he has precious little screen time to develop as an antagonist, so Harrison often comes off as nothing more then a violent terrorist with a penchant for Roy Batty-style finishing moves.

It's great to have Bruce Greenwood's Christopher Pike back even if the character has worse luck then Kenny from South Park.  Alice Eve, rockin' a delightfully-retro original series Star Trek look, is imminently watchable as Carol Marcus even if she's just there as a sexy plot device.  Finally, although it's great to see Peter Weller pick up a check, as soon as appears on screen as Admiral Marcus and grumbles a few hard-boiled lines the red alert klaxons started going off in my head.

In Abram's defense at least there's a modicum of wafer-thin subtext in this entry.  The villain's desire to militarize Starfleet and kick off a war with the Klingons using a false flag operation is a pretty heavy plot hook.  Unfortunately these interesting ideas are dispensed with as quickly as they're introduced, a victim of the film's juggernaut-like pacing.  Even the few and fleeting dialogue scenes are tainted by disco-like lens flares and a camera that spins around like a whirling dervish.

I was really hoping that Into Darkness would cast off the shackles of expectation and take this talented crew to the edge of the known galaxy and beyond.  Instead, the producers went in the exact opposite direction, giving us a patchwork compilation of successful and lucrative Star Trek-ian references.  My disappointment is palpable.

But Star Trek has always been about hope for the future, and my aspirations for this series are still undiminished.  In order to make good on their promise at the end of this film, all Abrams and his writing partners need to do is listen to Shatner's introductory voiceover a few hundred more times.  Maybe then the point will finally sink in. 

 Tilt: down.