He Lives! He Dies! He Is Canceled! (The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened?, 2015)

death_of_superman_livesIn 1998 the comic world was abuzz with talks of a new Superman movie.  We heard talks of a script, a director (Tim Burton) and a star (Nicholas Cage).  And then one day it was dead, and Superman did not return to the screen until 2006 with Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns.

Since the comics internet was barely a thing in 1998, the film remained shrouded in mystery for almost a decade.  We had no idea really how far it had gotten until a few years ago when pic of Cage in a shiny Supersuit surfaced on the web.  Kevin Smith had shared some tales as the second screenwriter.

Really, the story behind the story is quite intriguing. Cartoon Network animator Jon Schnepp decided to investigate how the film went so wrong, exploring the story by talking to almost everyone involved.  John Peters, Tim Burton, Kevin Smith and other screenwriters and producers and production designers all contribute to tell the odd tale of Burton and Cage’s goal of a lonelier Superman who struggled as an outsider.  Superman Scissorhands, if you will.

Oh yeah, and Peters’ desire to get another Giant Spider and some polar bears on screen.

I was impressed by how many people Schnepp was able to get to sit down and discuss the project.  The only person that seems to be missing is Nick Cage, who is represented via archival footage.

The film is thorough in it’s research and leaves no stone unturned.  Schnepp fills the documentary with cool graphics from the comic books, images of production art and everybody is quite forthcoming.

The film does not persuade me that it would have been a disaster, but it is an entertaining peek into film history.

Spirits In the Material World (Spirited Away, 2001)

spirited_away_poster Chihiro is an unhappy girl moving to a new city with her parents.  Along the way, they stumble across what looks to be an abandoned town.  There they discover unattended food, and her parents start to eat it, deciding to repay the townsfolk later.  Chihiro does not eat the food, instead opting to explore the town.  She runs into a lone inhabitant, Haku.  He tells her there is great danger.  He is not lying, as she finds her parents have transformed into pig.  The town is actually inhabited by demons, ghosts, witches and gods.

Chihiro ends up working in the bath house in the town, cleaning up and starting to befriend the various creatures as she tries to figure out how to save her parents.  Spirited Away is a joyous adventure which takes Chihiro from a selfish child to a strong hero.

The animation flows beautifully filled with magical designs.  It is a masterpiece filled with dragons, masked gods, phantoms, talking frogs.  It is, in a way, a whimsy overload.  But in the most wondrous way.

The film is a classic for the family, thrilling and a visual feast.

Love In Wartime (Howl’s Moving Castle, 2004)

howls_coverA young woman, Sofi, lives in a war torn town.  One day she meets Howl, a well known but mysterious wizard.  Soon after she is cursed by a jealous and vindictive witch.  Now looking like an old woman, Sofi seeks help from Howl and his companions who reside in his walking castle.

Howl’s Movie Castle is a fun fairy tale, set in a world of witches and princes fighting in a war, where nobody is willing to compromise.  Howl is a charming, yet at times childish, wizard seeking to stay out of the war.  Nearly every character is under some kind of curse.

Much like Miyazaki’s Spirited Away or My Neighbor Totoro, Howl’s Moving Castle is infused with a real touch of the whimsical.  One of the interesting things is that the removal of the curse become set aside for the development of the relationships between Sofi, Howl and the other inhabitants of the castle.

That is the real heart of the film, the curse is just the excuse to bring them all together.

The backgrounds are stunning, and the animation gorgeous.  No surprise, as this is a Studio Ghibli film.  Howl’s Moving Castle is an enchanting and engaging film for almost any age.

Spiritual Neighbors (My Neighbor Totoro, 1988)

2015-11-12 17.59.31Hayao Miyazaki is a pretty beloved director with a string of classic animated films.  Many have tried to duplicate his success across the world, but often, fail to key in on what makes his stories work.

My Neighbor Totoro is a beautifully simple film.  It is the tale of Satsuki and Mei, young sisters brought to the country while they wait for their mother to get out of the hospital.  The young girls discover their new home and it’s surroundings are full of nature spirits.  They befriend a giant cat/teddy bear hybrid named Totoro.  Totoro looks big and roars a lot, but is adorable and engaging.  His relationship with these two little kids is remarkably touching, considering how little time it is given.

The film focuses mostly on the girls and their father.  This is a warm and loving relationship, and especially nice is that the father has no concerns about his children believing in nature spirits.  He engages them, telling them of a time when trees and humans were friends.

There is also plenty of attention given to their human neighbors.  There is the kindly Granny who cleans the house and Kanta, a young boy with rough edges, but actually quite generous.

The animation is enchanting, with lush painted backgrounds and fluid action.   The nature spirits are whimsical and the most ideal of imaginary “monsters”.  They are never threatening in their design.

The film is a real joy and worth watching.

Bond’s Childhood Issues (Spectre, 2015)

bond_spectre_posterI confess, I was not waiting as anxiously for this film.  Craig has gone out of his way to show a real lack of enthusiasm for the role.  And yeah, some of the criticisms are very accurate, though I felt they were doing a better job as toning those things down and moving towards eliminating them.

Casino Royal was a game changer for the franchise that revitalized the series.  Craig was seen as one of the best Bonds.  Folks were excited for the next film…and then came Quantum of Solace.  And enthusiasm dampened.  Then they announced Sam Mendes as director for Skyfall.  And people started getting excited again.  Javier Bardem was announced as the villain and people got a bit more excited (but nervous when they saw his hairstyle).  And Skyfall came out.  And enthusiasm again dampened.

I did not hate Quantum of Solace or Skyfall.  They were okay, and far from the worst the franchise has offered.  but they focused to much on villains that were never that interesting with back stories so tied to bond, they felt like they lacked the bigger motives.  gone are the notions of Bond discovering a plan and being the fly in the ointment, he became their focus.

Any hope that Spectre would turn things around (and end Craig’s run on a high note) were dashed.  It is simply enjoyable.  It has some great action sequences, and M’s heavier involvement in the resolution of the film (in spite of the film relying yet again on the notion of Bond being cut off and on his own) works well.  Same with making Q and Moneypenny heavier hitters, so to speak.

Yet, often, when the film gets talky, it gets immensely boring and never feels like it advances the story.  Wit and wordplay are part of the history of Bond, yet Spectre lacks any of it.  Craig’s Bond may be less of a misogynist, but he is also plenty dreary.

The film has decided the relationship between Blofeld and Bond needs to be intensely personal.  There is no need for this, and wastes a great actor like Christophe Waltz on a rather uninspired take on the villain.  The organization of Spectre lacks any ominous threat.

That said, the action sequences are solid and exciting.  And I really liked the opening credits sequence.  But if this is Craig’s last outing as Bond?  It does not end on a high note.

Camping Trips Are Bad For Ya’ (Deliverance, 1972)

deliveranceHeads up.  A bit “spoilerific”.

The first thing that stood out as the film began was that it looks and feels like it was made in the seventies. And it’s not just the presence of young Burt Reynolds. The cinematography screams early seventies. So does the audio. There is a certain muted quality to the audio of those films predating the surround sound era.

None of this is bad, and I am not stating these things as actual criticisms of the film, or even setbacks. Granted, the HD treatment helps it to not look as faded. The colors are a bit fresher than they most likely would have looked on video.

Deliverance also reflects the fears of it’s time. Fear of environmental catastrophes, and how modern man could survive them. Destruction of natural environments by humanity’s hands. Certainly, such fears and concerns remain with us, in some different fashions, but with us none the less. This is mostly embodied in the somewhat rough friendship of Ed (Jon Voight) and Lewis (Burt Reynolds). They appear to be long time friends, who have gone on similar outings in the past. Lewis is a self styled “survivalist” who thrives in the wilderness and is critical of the modern world. Ed, on the other hand, is a happy family man, with a comfortable life and job. It’s unclear in the film how they met or how it came to be that they take these trips, we only know this is not the first one due to Lewis asking Ed why he goes on these trips.

Along with them are two guys clearly from Ed’s world, Bobby (Ned Beatty) and Drew (Ronny Cox).  Both salesmen out for an exciting weekend of canoeing down a river. Drew is apparently a musician of some degree, early on seen always wearing a guitar.

When the friends stop for gas, we get a scene that seems to both have a sense of joy and an atmosphere of danger. No matter how hard they try, no one seems to say anything right to the mountain folk. But Drew connects with a young boy through music. The boy appears to be autistic, or at least dealing with some kind of mental disability. He is not social until Drew starts playing guitar. Without blinking, the kid starts to play his banjo back. As the music kicks in full gear, the young boy comes alive, smiling and looking excited. His father dancing in the background, all is good. But the minute they stop, the boy rigidly turns his head and stays motionless, staring into space as Drew tries to shake his hand.

At first, while on the river, all seems normal. In fact, that sense of foreboding fades. It’s the next day when things begin to take their dark turn. Ed keeps catching glimpses of people in the distance between trees. Eventually, in a truly harrowing sequence, he discovers this was not his imagination. Tying Ed to a tree, two mountain men torment and humiliate Bobby. This culminates in one of the mountain men raping Bobby. You know, there has been much more graphic sequences put on film than this. But Ned Beatty’s performance creates incredible empathy for his character. Your heart breaks for him with every whimper and squeal. Ed is saved from such horrific indignities when Lewis and Drew come back looking for them. Drew dispatches one of the hicks with an arrow, and the other runs away.

The four men then argue over what to do. Of course, they choose to try and cover the death up. Drew is the most troubled by this, feeling the right thing to do is bring the body back and explain everything to the authorities. This is a tension filled moment, and Ronny Cox’s Drew is sympathetic…but then, Bobby’s desire to literally bury his shame is very understandable. He wants to hide what’s happened to him, a wholly human desire.

This sets off a chain of events as they try to get down river to their cars and away from this mountain forever. In their panic, they end up with one boat destroyed and the loss of Drew in the rapids. Lewis is wounded and it is left up to Ed to protect them. Earlier in the film we had foreshadowing in a sequence showing Ed trying to shoot a deer with Lewis’ bow and arrow set and failing. Now, believing they are being hunted by the other hillbilly, Ed must take the bow and arrows and track the mountain man. For Ed this is a clear struggle to overcome his fear and limitations. And what seems straight forward and simple becomes on of the films most tense moments.

When they finally do make it to their cars, they concoct a story to explain how they lost Drew and Lewis was wounded. Things begin to unravel, as the film portrays the police of the area far more competently than one might expect. They know that the story doesn’t add up, and they start to cause mistrust between Ed and Bobby. It’s clear, even as the police let them go, the local sheriff (portrayed rather ominously by Deliverance author James Dickey) knows that something bad went down.

Director John Boorman’s direction is terrific, making the scenery as important as the characters in it. Reynolds, who was not a proven commodity at the time, is terrific as the hunter who desires to leave society, while Voight makes a genuine everyman who is forced to survive in primitive fashion. And the performances by Beatty and Cox (both of who I tend to associate most with later roles-specifically Otis in the Superman films and Dick Jones from Robocop-where Cox was deliciously evil) are standout, heartfelt ones.

The HD DVD contained a four part documentary that was fascinating, especially as it delved into the relationship of author Dickey to the director, cast and crew of the film. The interviews bring back the director and all the primary actors (as well as Dickey’s son) and hearing them discuss the film so much later gives it a more interesting perspective. The one problem with documentaries for newer films on DVD is that the creators are to close to the work. They are far more willing to look at an earlier work with a fairer and more critical eye. That’s what tends to benefit some of the films that are twenty or thirty years old just getting the special edition treatment.

All in all, Deliverance is as strong as it ever was, in spite of the times being more graphic in our movies, this film still keeps you enthralled.

The Animals Went In Two by Two (Evan Almighty, 2007)

imageBruce Almighty was a hit, and the studio wanted a  sequel.  The most admirable thing Tom Shadyac and his crew did?  They avoided doing a total retread.  They told Bruce’s story, and they did not want to just make a total formula sequel.

In some ways, this film owes more to the Oh God Franchise than the first film.  This one has a focus set on Evan getting a mission from God.  And it borrows heavily from movies like the Santa Clause.  Evan does not just get a Noah-like mission, he grows instant beards.  Animals flock to him. He has to build a really big boat.

Carrell was a standout performer by then, and they opted to follow Evan Baxter and his family.  While Freeman is back in the Mercy Seat, the film’s option to look at how the personal can impact the bigger picture never quite comes together as effectively as the first film.

In addition, the original story of Noah is one of judgement and punishment on a grand scale.  But while I appreciate the environmental conservation message the film tries to convey, Evan is not trying to stop an immediate extinction level threat, and the stakes that should be there simply are not.  By being a bit more bigger picture, the film fails to hold up as effectively as the previous film which stayed local and personal.

Hail to the King (Bruce Almighty, 2003)

imageAfter lukewarm receptions to How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Carrey went back to where his bigger successes occured.  High concept comedies.  And you do not get more high concept than Bruce Almighty.

A couple decades after the Oh God series, we see George Burns replaced by Morgan Freeman in the role of God.  Carrey plays Bruce Nolan, a sad sack who does not appreciate what he has, rather wanting more, believing he will be happy once he achieves his goals.  And his biggest goal?  To try and move from doing puff pieces for the local news station to the anchor desk.  He tries to be positive, but is dealt a crushing blow when the job goes to his rival Evan Baxter (Steve Carrell).

Angry and at the end of his rope, he ends up getting a meeting with God.  God is not really impressed with Bruce’s complaints and makes him a deal.  Bruce has the omnipotent power of God for a week.  Bruce agrees, and initially relishes the power.

This is a fairly entertaining bit, as we see Bruce experiment with what he can do.  And at first it seems awesome…until he starts discovering some of the drawbacks…like hearing everyone’s prayers.  Bruce starts to find things getting harder, and he is chasing away his girlfriend Grace, who is tired of Bruce being so focused on himself and his unwillingness to see what he has as enough.  Bruce tries to use his powers to fix his personal problem, and quickly tries to find shortcuts for the responsibility stuff (like prayers from people).  Of course, it ends up only being made worse.

Even with the powers of a supreme being, Bruce’s life is more messed up than ever.  Bruce hits bottom, even though he can move the moon.

And this is where the film works so well.  It is very focused, with a very simple point.  Don’t be a self centered jerk.  Bruce begins to look outside himself…he starts to help people in regular human ways.  Rather than worrying about what is just out of his grasp, Bruce focuses on what is right there in front of him.

Freeman makes a pretty nice avatar for God.  He is kind, gentle, loving and patient.  He is not there to accuse Bruce, he is there to open Bruce’s eyes.  Like Oh God before it, Bruce Almighty’s God does try and tackle some of the tough questions about existence.  They do it best when they keep it simple.

While you can predict the happy ending on it’s way, the film manages to earn it’s happy ending.  It does not cheat.  Bruce does not have to just say he is sorry and everything is awesome.  No, he has to work to get there.  He has to give up dreams and find a new path.

Oh. My. Gawd. Devil. Whoever. (Oh God You Devil, 1984)

OhGodYouDevil-Poster_CRThe third and final film in the Oh, God! series actually takes a new approach.  Oh, God! You Devil focuses on one soul’s salvation, rather than God giving a guy a mission, this one is about a tug of war over one man’s soul between God and the devil.  And it has a gimmick.  George Burns plays both God and Devil.

The film opens in the past, as a father prays desperately over his ill son.  Then the film picks up to where we meet that child, Bobby Shelton all grown up (Played by Ted Wass-the dad from Blossom).  He is a married and struggling musician.  His agent cannot do much better than get him wedding gigs.

Meanwhile, we meet the devil.  Apparently, the Devil goes by the name Harry O. Tophet (apparently, Tophet is Hebrew for hell).   And we know he is the devil because he thinks hurricanes are nice weather and his eyes glow red.  The devil is seeking a soul to devour.

We are quickly introduced to a rock star named Billy Wayne (Robert Desidario) who is on tour…  He seems desperate and is chatting with a familiar voice-the devil.  Apparently, his contract is up and the devil is collecting.  In a puff of smoke, Billy Wayne is gone.

Bobby, frustrated by the music business declares he would sell his soul to the devil.  While performing at a wedding, Bobby is approached by Tophet.  Tophet says he wants to represent Bobby.  Bobby is somewhat reluctant, until Tophet shows up at a record meeting.  He convinces Bobby to dump his manager (Eugene Roche) and take Tophet into the meeting with the two executives.

The executives read Tophet’s contract, laughing all the way-until Bobby signs the contract.  Then everything changes.  In a whirlwind, he is signed and on tour.  He has fame and riches-as Billy Wayne.  But then Bobby gets a shock.  He calls his wife Wendy (Roxanne Hart)-only to discover that she believes her husband is home with her.  The previous Billy Wayne has taken Bobby’s place in his life.

Bobby soon figures out that he has made a deal with the devil.  Tophet tries to discourage Bobby from seeking outside help.  Bobby ends up in Vegas attempting to find God.  After some prayer God calls Bobby (by phone).

The film culminates in a high stakes poker game between God and Tophet.

Without a doubt, I found this film to be an improvement over the second one.  It does not rehash the previous films and finds a different way to resolution.  It works in the film’s favor to not make it yet another “God sends a prophet” story.  I found the interaction between God effective-I especially like how the poker game works itself out.

Interestingly, it is only in the end that Bobby and God meet face to face.  Burns works a bit of that magic from the first film in the conversation, God as kindly, but straight forward (“You made a deal with the devil…how dumb could you be?”) and above all, a sense of mystery touched with love and generosity.

This film was one of Burn’s last (although, he lived another 12 years), and you can see the years are catching up-he seems a bit more tired this time around.

While not as strong as the first film, Oh, God! You Devil actually has a lot to like.  I confess, it is a franchise I would not mind seeing tackled again (although, the Bruce/Evan Almighty films tread into this territory).

Oh. My. Gawd. Again. (Oh God Book II, 1980)

oh-god-book-2-movie-poster-1980In 1980, God returned to the big screen with Oh, God! Book II.  This time, he visits a young girl named Louanne (Tracy Richards) dealing with the separation of her parents (played Suzanne Pleshette and David Birney).  Her dad is an adman dating a woman who is given the defining characteristics of having large breasts and obliviousness to Tracy.

God appears to Tracy with a goal.  Promote God.  He sets a few rules, specifically she cannot tell any adults.  So she enlists her friends and they start putting up signs that say Think God.  She gets kicked out of school and is sent to see a psychiatrist.  The film culminates with God walking in on a group of psychiatrists and challenging them.

While I get what they were going for by having God appear to a child, it never works quite as effectively.  For one thing, it is a lot easier to write off a kid believing in an imaginary friend as a phase than a grown man claiming he can see God.  I question the likelihood that a kid would get hauled before a psychiatric tribunal to determine her mental health.  I suspect it would be written off as cute things precocious little kids do.

The other problem is the film rehashes the same questions.  Like Jerry, Tracy wants to know why there is suffering.  Why choose me?  Admittedly, these are questions that come up repeatedly, but still…it would have been nice for them to tackle some other tough questions.

Burns is good as God, but the film tends to drag when he is not around.  The overall feeling is this was rushed to the floor, even though there is a three year gap from the first film.  Ultimately, I did not find myself  enjoying the complete retread.

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