Tag: Christopher Reeve

42 Since ’71 (Part 1)

Julia Sweeney, she of Saturday Night Live and Letting Go Of God, describes a fun idea for a best movie list in her latest blog post:

I went on a Mike Leigh bender during May – I’ve seen all those films before, but it was lovely to see them again. Topsy Turvy is one of my all-time favorite films.  The audio commentary by Leigh is just delightful, almost as compelling as the film itself.  Nakedis so dark, so disturbing, and so beautifully shot – it’s such a mind-blower.  Topsy Turvy – is this my favorite modern film?  It might be.

When I say modern, to me that means a film made after 1959, the year of my birth. I have a plan that I hope to execute in the next months, on this website. I want to list and describe my favorite 59 films made before 1959.  My favorite films made in 1959 (which happened to have been a spectacular year for film: North by Northwest, Anatomy of a Murder, Rio Bravo, Some Like it Hot, Floating Weeds – to just name a few!  Then I was going to do this too: My Favorite 54 Films made after 1959.  (Why 54? Because I’m 54. Then I’d add one every year…) And then a few top-top-top lists and a favorite.  I’ve been noodling with my choices for over a year, but I haven’t organized them to post – yet…

In a comment, I told Julia I’d have to steal her idea and do my 42 favorite films since 1971 (the year of my birth). I’ll follow this with my favorite 42 films made prior to 1971, and my five favorite films of 1971. (Even in Hollywood’s best year, I’m not likely to find more than five to ten films I can classify as favorites.) Julia encouraged this theft, so here we go.

My favorite 42 films made after 1971 (in no particular order, in case you were wondering):

1. The Godfather

We almost have to begin here. There’s no way to talk about the last half century of cinema without talking about The Godfather and its sequel, The Godfather Part II. It’s a family saga, an immigrant’s epic, a meditation on the morality of capitalism, and a playground for the best American actors of their generation. It resurrected the moribund career of Marlon Brando, and it introduced us to Al Pacino. It even changed the way mobsters talk. Not bad for a pitch Mario Puzo gave to Robert Evans so Evans could justify giving Puzo $10,000 to pay off his gambling debts. Most important to all of us, three hours with this film feels like thirty minutes of most others (or 1.37 seconds of any given Michael Bay flick). That’s how entertaining The Godfather is.

2. Chinatown

I debated whether I should go with this one or Nicholson’s other post 1971 triumph, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. But even though I admire that picture, it comes in second behind Roman Polanski’s tale of corruption and greed in ’30s era Los Angeles. All mysteries end with the villain unmasked and order restored, but few have the guts to leave the unmasked villain in charge of that order.

3. The Conversation

When Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather proved to be an unexpected smash hit, Paramount wanted a sequel. So Coppola made them an offer they couldn’t refuse. In addition to a car and a pile of money, Coppola wanted financing to do any movie he wanted. The movie he wanted to do: The Conversation. It’s a thrilling story of paranoia and surveillance all based on a seemingly simple question. Did the people that Gene Hackman’s Harry Caul was bugging say “If he knew, he’d kill us” or “If he knew, he’d kill us.”? Is Caul listening to potential murderers or potential victims, and is his wealthy client either their target or their hunter?

4. The Godfather Part II

Often called the best sequel of all time, The Godfather Part II deepens and broadens the story of the Corleone family, linking the tale of Don Corleone’s rise in America to his son Michael’s efforts to keep the family business strong fifty years later. Most movies have two or three good scenes. This movie has dozens, from the kiss of death to Kay’s abortion revelation,  from Senator Gehry’s extortion threats to Fredo’s last trip in the boat, from the first shot of the empty chair to the last shot of Michael, graying, sitting alone in wintry desolation.  The movie is an extraordinary look at how the system that fueled Don Corleone’s rise and sustained his wealth also led to the physical and/or moral destruction of his sons. The price of The Family is his family.

5. Network

To watch Network is to watch a work of supremely gifted comic insight. Paddy Chayefsky, the peerless satirical mind behind The Americanization of Emily, wasn’t a prophet, but he could certainly see what television was becoming, and how it could serve the interests of soulless hustlers whose only skill was taking any genuine emotion and molding it into something that can turn a quick buck. A key quote:

Diana Christensen: Look, we’ve got a bunch of hobgoblin radicals called the Ecumenical Liberation Army who go around taking home movies of themselves robbing banks. Now, maybe they’ll take movies of themselves kidnapping heiresses, hijacking 747s, bombing bridges, assassinating ambassadors. We’d open each week’s segment with their authentic footage, hire a couple of writers to write a story behind that footage, and we’ve got ourselves a series.

This was satire. Now, in TV, we do it for real.

6. Superman: The Movie

Much as I adore the cynical, satirical films of the 1970s, I also love Hollywood’s attempts to repackage a feeling of innocence and common purpose for an audience jaded by Vietnam, the Kennedy and King assassinations, and Watergate. Star Wars was one example of this, but though I look upon that movie fondly, as time has passed I’ve grown to like Superman better. Of the two, Superman has the more literate script, the deeper emotion, and a star in Christopher Reeve who truly commanded the screen. The part of the Man of Steel was thought to be impossible to cast, but in Reeve they found someone who could not only recreate the icon, but making him modern and relatable. That no one has really pulled this off since in live action is a testament to Reeve’s performance.

7. The Spy Who Loved Me

The best of the Roger Moore Bond pictures and still my favorite of the Bond movies made in my lifetime, The Spy Who Loved Me was, like Superman and Star Wars, an attempt to repackage the idea of a common purpose during a divisive time.  James Bond has to team up with a Soviet agent and the U.S. Navy to stop a rich lunatic from using captured nuclear submarines to ignite World War III. The movie boasts the best opening Bond stunt (the ski jump off a cliff), the best villain lairs (Atlantis and the Liparus), one of the best cars (the Lotus Esprit submarine), and the best villain’s henchman (Jaws).

8. Tootsie

How do I love this movie? Let me count the ways. I love the scene where Bill Murray’s playwright character spouts drunken pretentious bullshit at a party: “I don’t like it when people come up to me after my plays and say, ‘I really dug your message, man.’ Or, ‘I really dug your play, man, I cried.’ You know. I like it when people come up to me the next day, or a week later, and they say, ‘I saw your play. What happened?'” I love Michael Dorsey’s arguments with his increasingly impatient agent, (played by Dustin Hoffman and Sydney Pollack) “You were a tomato! A tomato doesn’t have logic! A tomato can’t move!” “That’s what I said! So how can a tomato sit down, George?” I love how when Michael Dorsey becomes Dorothy Michaels, he not only learns how much bullshit women have to put up with just to get through the day, but he realizes just how much bullshit he’s put women through. And I love the reveal. It’s magic.

9. The Shining

The Shining is one of the rare horror movies that scares you more the second time you see it than the first, and even more each subsequent time. I can understand why Stephen King didn’t care for Kubrick’s adaptation. King looked at the story of Jack, Wendy, and Danny and saw a metaphor for alcohol’s corrosive effects on the family. Kubrick was more interested in examining a man whose desire to lose himself in the past compels him to try to murder his present. In Kubrick’s formulation, that Jack seems mentally unbalanced from the beginning is beside the point. In the early scenes, Jack seems to fit life poorly because he’s trying to be something he isn’t–a decent modern man. The hotel seduces Jack into murder by offering him the prize of the life he really wants, one where, yes, he’s a servant of the toffs in the tuxes, but he can still swill free whiskey, abuse his wife and kid, boink the occasional guest, and use all the racial slurs he likes without consequences. Booze isn’t the real intoxicant offered to Jack Torrance in The Shining; it’s white male privilege.

10. The Empire Strikes Back

Of the six current Star Wars pictures, only this one gets my unreserved admiration. Star Wars was a triumph of production design and special effects, and the charm of its lead actors managed to elevate Lucas’s often incredibly corny dialog. (Honestly, a cocky pilot who insists on calling the movie’s only woman “Sister”? No one had done that in a movie in 30 years, for good reason.)  Still, it wasn’t Empire, which brought much better writing (thank you, Lawrence Kasdan) and a much more interesting approach to Darth Vader to the proceedings. (Even Han Solo’s sobriquets for Leia got an upgrade. He stopped calling her “sister” and instead referred to her by the wittier nicknames “Your Highnessness” and “Your Worship”.) Kasdan and Irvin Kershner fill Empire with thrilling set pieces which tie together into a narrative that enriches the Star Wars universe without ever bogging it down in exposition. (I’m looking at you, prequels.)

11. Raiders of the Lost Ark

When it comes to wish fulfillment fantasy, it’s hard to beat one that ends with the Nazis getting their faces melted off by the Ark of the Covenant. Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas teamed up with Lawrence Kasdan to both pay homage to and hugely surpass the adventure serials of the 1930s with Indiana Jones, a character who is compelling at least in part because he is a spectacular failure. Unlike 007, who always wins and gets the girl without sustaining so much as a bruise, Indiana Jones takes endless, cut opening, skin bruising, bone crunching beatings in his efforts to grab or hold on to objects that are constantly slipping from his grasp.  In Raiders, Indy never actually wins the Ark of the Covenant. Once he finds it, the Nazis take it from him. He chases after it and gets it again. Then he loses it, again. He chases, tries to bluff the Nazis out of it, and fails. Finally, after the Ark kills the Nazis off, we think he’s got it, but he loses it again, this time to Army Intelligence, who lock it up in one of the most famous parting shots of the 1980s. Harrison Ford’s Indy may be a loser, but he’s a brilliant, indefatigable loser whose defeats I never tire of watching.

That’s it for part 1. Part 2 will be all about disco, lonely gunmen, heroin, hot Brooklyn days, and the Holocaust.

UPDATE (8/2/2014): Here are links to the other three parts.

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Was Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut An Improvement?

I’ve done a few posts on this blog about the possibility of rewriting certain bad movies into better movies. I’ve never bothered to try the same exercise on a movie I liked. Superman II was one of my favorite flicks when I was younger, and I can still pop it in the Blu-Ray player and watch it with pleasure. Yes, some of Richard Lester’s touches are campier than current blockbuster fashions endorse, and yes, the big cellophane S Superman tosses at Non in the Fortress of Solitude came out of nowhere. That said, the film was fast paced, with high stakes and a collection of outstanding performances from Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Terence Stamp, Gene Hackman, and company. The film made scads of money for everyone involved, and (along with its predecessor, Superman: the Movie) marks the Man of Steel’s zenith on celluloid even to this day.

So everyone walked away feeling good, right?

No.

I understand that Richard Donner’s dismissal from the Superman II project remains a sore point for him. He’d invested years of his time and talent into these films, had enjoyed success, and certainly felt he’d earned the chance to finish what he’d started. His cast and crew were loyal to him, and they resented coming back to finish the picture with Richard Lester. (Gene Hackman refused outright.) No doubt, when Warner Brothers offered him the chance to restore his vision of the film and release it, it was a great temptation.

Based on the results, it’s one Donner should have resisted.

The main problem with Superman II: The Donner Cut is that it doesn’t fix anything that was ostensibly broken about the theatrical release. Instead, in its zeal to remove as many traces of Richard Lester’s work as it can, it creates whole new narrative problems.

The first issue, the Superman reveal. In the theatrical cut, Lois Lane figures out Clark Kent is the Man of Steel when he trips over a polyester bear and falls into the Flames of Love (trademarked, presumably), emerging unsinged. The Donner Cut chooses to go with the earlier draft reveal, which was used in screen test footage. In it, Lane points a gun at Kent, insisting she’s so sure he’s Superman that she’s willing to bet his life on it. She fires. Kent remains standing, but he says, “If you’d been wrong, Clark Kent would be dead now.” Lane replies that the gun was loaded with blanks.

Okay. On the surface, this is a neat scene, but a few questions arise. Everybody knows Superman is impervious to bullets, but there’s never been any suggestion that he doesn’t notice when they hit him. In the first film, he’s able to track a bullet in flight and catch it before it hits Lois, so he surely would have seen that no bullet came from her gun. (Also, because he has X-Ray vision, he could have glanced at the gun and seen that it was loaded with blanks before she even fired.) He could have played things out by wetting his pants and shouting “Geez, Lois, WHAT THE HELL!” The theatrical cut’s reveal may not be ideal–though given Clark Kent’s established clumsiness and Lois Lane’s suggestion that Superman actually wanted Lois to find him out–it works better than Donner’s offering.

And there’s the ending. Superman II ends with Lois suffering because her love for Superman must go unrequited and because she’ll never find someone else to measure up. So Superman gives her a kiss that magically makes her forget that Clark and Superman are the same person. I understand that Superman’s Kiss of Forgetfulness does have some comic book precedence. Still, as with the cellophane S, there is a bit of Superman can do THAT!?! in the moment.

Does Superman II: The Donner Cut fix this problem? Yes and no. The kiss is gone. Instead, Superman erases Lois’s memory by flying around the world really fast again, reversing time until the world is repaired, Zod and Friends are back in the Phantom Zone, and everything’s status quo ante bellum.

The problems with doing this are legion. Not only does it feel repetitive, but viewer has to wonder why, if Superman could just fix this whole Zod situation by reversing time, he didn’t just do that in the first place. What were the Metropolis fight and the confrontation in the Fortress of Solitude for?  His reversal of time in the first movie felt like an understandable lapse, born of passion and grief. Now it feels like Superman’s mucking with the space-time continuum so that he doesn’t have to feel sorry for Lois. Will he edit time every time he arrives too late to handle a disaster, or every time he feels bad that he’s hurt someone’s feelings? Aren’t the dangers inherent in the overuse of these kinds of powers exactly why the Kryptonians forbade him from using them in the first place?

Leaving grander concerns aside for a minute, the time-editing sequence also leaves The Donner Cut with a final glaring howler. After Superman edits time, he returns to the restaurant where a bullying truck driver beat the snot out of then-fully-human Clark Kent. He mentions that the truck driver is sitting in Clark’s favorite seat, and the driver, who apparently recognizes Clark even though, after history’s edit, their meeting should never have taken place. The driver invites Kent over for Round 2, hits him, breaks his hand, and Superman is free to wreak his vengeance.

This scene is in the theatrical cut too, but it works because Superman did suffer his first physical defeat, a humiliating one, at this man’s hands. Letting Clark Kent have a bit of payback seems only fair. But in the Donner Cut‘s version, the truck driver is, must be, a man who never did Superman or Clark Kent any harm. The Donner Cut concludes with our hero, the most powerful being on Earth, thrashing an innocent trucker for kicks. Not exactly an occasion for John Williams’s music to swell, is it?

The Donner Cut did contain some interesting footage, particularly of Marlon Brando in the fortress of solitude. Brando’s scene where he restores the wayward Superman’s powers, which required a kind of second death for him, was touching. But overall, the game wasn’t worth the candle. There have been director’s cuts that have improved on the original: Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Lethal WeaponBlade Runnerand (arguably) The ExorcistSuperman II: The Donner Cut is not one of these.