The Quest for A Better Story (Superman IV: the Quest for Peace, 1987)

Superman-IV-posterSuperman III bombed heavily.  Eventually, the rights were sold to Canon Films.  Reeve had sworn off ever playing Superman again.  But four years later he was back.  In part, he was promised that he could be involved with the story.  And the story we got was Superman getting rid of all our nuclear weapons.  He puts them in a net and hurls them into the son.  Gene Hackman is back as Lex Luthor…he gets busted out of prison by his dope of a nephew Lenny (Jon Cryer, looking like he stepped on the set of Hiding Out).  His plan is to take advantage of Superman’s plan by using Superman’s DNA (from a strand of Superman’s hair) and get it in with the missiles.  He succeeds and creates the weirdest enemy for Superman the screen has seen.

Nuclear Man is Luthor’s creation…and has Luthor’s actual voice.  He is super strong, can fly, breathe in space, grow his fingernails long and sharp…he even scratches Superman and makes him sick.  Nuclear Man has one weakness

In addition, there is a subplot where businessman David Warfield (Sam Wanamaker)and his attractive daughter Lacy (Mariel Hemingway) are buying the Daily Planet and want to turn it into a tabloid paper.  Which would be a decent story-line if the Planet had ever shown itself interested in anything other than fluff pieces in the previous films.

Lacy starts to pursue Clark, while Lois still only has eyes for Superman.  This leads to a double date sequence where Reeve keeps switching personas based on which woman he is visiting.  Eventually Clark reveals himself to Superman (no worries, she forgets by the end through story magic).  This plot feels problematic and unnecessary.

The return of Hackman does not improve the film, his character feels like a cartoonish version of the character he was.  If Nuclear Man gave actor Mark Pillow any hope of a big movie career…it appears the film killed it.

This film is quite terrible, and using a plot where Superman solves such a real world issue as nuclear war…it just does not play effectively.  The performers all feel like they are sleepwalking through the roles, with little more to say about them.  The Quest for Peace really earned it’s terrible reputation.  And it killed the Superman Franchise for almost twenty years.

Cut Rate Superman (Superman III, 1983)

superman-3-posterSuperman three came three years after Superman II, riding high on it’s success, but behind the scenes things looked bleak.  There was a divide between some of the cast and the Salkinds over how they had treated Richard Donner.  Kidder was not really feeling up to participating.  To address this, Perry sends her off to the tropics, while sending Clark to do a story in Smallville at his High School Reunion.

Rally, this seems like a plausible idea.  There is a rich cast of characters to draw from.  And they draw from Clark’s past with introducing Lana Lang, played by Annette O’Toole (who was later brought on Smallville to play Martha Kent).  O’Toole makes a fetching Lana Lang.

The other big addition to the cast was computer genius Gus Gorman.  Played by comedy legend Richard Pryor, he gets a lot of blame from folks for this film.  He plays his traditional nervous twitchy type of character.  Except, I have a hard time pinning this on Pryor.  Richard joked to Johnny Carson about wanting to be in a Superman movie.  He felt the script was terrible…but the five million dollar paycheck was to good to pass up.  Gorman is a computer super-genius who starts working for Ross Webster’s company.  He writes a program that pays him fractions of cents that the company loses daily due to mathematical rounding up of numbers.  He makes millions and is brought to the attention of Webster (played by Robert Vaughn).  Webster and his sister Vera are schemers and want to take over the world.  Ross also has his own Miss Tessmacher, Lorelei (Pamela Stephenson).  Her primary purpose is some impressive cleavage.  They use Gus to create a supercomputer and also work to get Superman out of the way.  They manufacture Krytonite and use tar in place of an ingredient they cannot fine.  The result is that Superman goes dark.  He starts causing damage, being means, getting drunk.  And then he fights Clark Kent in a junk yard.  This is without a doubt the high point of the entire film.

Webster is like a second hand version of Lex Luthor, and the character has for less weight.  You can see the giant hole left by not having Lex Luthor or a larger scale villain (such as Braniac, one character they thought about using in Superman III).

The smaller character moments are okay, like when Clark sees Lana’s son being bullied in a bowling alley and sneezes to shoot her son’s bowling ball into the pins.  But for the most part, the film falls flat.  It is not a very good film and Reeve swore off the role of Superman.

Superman II the Remix (Superman II, The Donner Cut, 2006)

Superman-2-Donner-Cut-posterAssemble almost 30 years later, the Donner cut restores the original footage Donner shot and also uses some of the Lester material to fill in the blanks.  It was not assembled by Donner, but it had his blessing.

And in many, many ways, it improves the movie.  Gone are the weird additional powers.  Gone is the opening Eiffel Tower sequence.  Instead we have Lois trying to prove Clark Kent is Superman by jumping out a window of the Daily Planet.  Which is pretty absurd.  In a way, it is reminiscent of the Bible story where Satan tries to Tempt Jesus by suggesting if he jumps off the temple, Angels will save him.  And this is not Lois being a smart reporter, this is her doing something dumb.

The stuff that works, works very well and make this a pretty fun watch.  But some of the additions are problematic.  While the Super-Kiss to rob Lois of her memory is gone, Superman’s resolution is to fly the world backwards.  As I noted in the Review of Superman the Movie, this bit was meant to be the ending of Superman II.  As they had no ending shot by Donner, they re-use the sequence, and he reverses time to the point that the Kryptonian criminals are again trapped in the Phantom Zone once more.  But this creates all sorts of problems.  Superman is supposedly making it so the entire second film never happens.  The criminals never get loose, Clark never reveals his identity to Lois, they never visit the cafe.  Yet Clark goes back to the Cafe and beats up the trucker.  Who must have no idea why a guy he has never seen before walked in and started insulting him.  This is not Superman.

And reversing time does not mean the cycle won’t begin again, unless Superman avoids the situation that freed Zod, Ursa and Non in the first place.  End why should we have cared about any of it if Superman completely undoes everything?  So, even the Donner cut has problems.  Superman still causes a lot of destruction in his fight with his Kryptonian foes.  They still lose their powers and get kills by Superman and Lois.  I am told the novelization claims they survived…apparently they landed on pillows or something…but the novelization is not the movie.  It is pretty obvious they are dead.

So, why more entertaining and slightly less frustrating than Lester’s cut,  the Donner Cut is plenty flawed on it’s own.

Bring on the Bad Guys (Superman 2, 1980)

superman_2_posterSuperman the Movie and Superman II were filmed back to back, but director Richard Lester came in when there was friction between the Salkinds and Donner.  He threw out a lot of what Donner filmed and started over.  Remember Zod and his Cronies?  They are still floating through space in the Phantom Zone.  When Superman thwarts a terrorist plot by launching a bomb into space, they are set free and make their way to earth.

Superman 2 is often held up as a standard of great sequels and a great super-hero film.  Unfortunately, it is not.  The film has Superman (and Zod, Ursa and Non) developing random powers and weapons.  Their heat vision suddenly can be used as tractor beams, Superman’s logo can turn is a giant cellophane bag, they can shoot beams from their fingers.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some good points.  The Villains are frightening at times.  Terrance Stamp is menacing and arrogant, while Douglas plays Ursa with a disinterested flair.  She is slightly amused by earthlings, but she could never care, she lacks all compassion.

There is a story in which Lois and Clark must pose as newlyweds.  This leads to the reveal of Clark’s secret to Lois, which leads to them running off for romance.  Superman and Lois hide away in the Fortress of Solitude, completely unaware of the arrival of the Kryptonian criminals.  Superman realizes that to be with Lois, he must give up his power.  He consults with his Mother Lara (well, a hologram of her and she shows him a machine that will bath him in the light of a red sun and make him human.  You can see where this is going.  When Lois and Clark start to make their way home, Clark tries to defend Lois at a cafe.  A trucker beats the crap out of him.  This moment is actually really well handled, Reeve really sells Clark’s startling realization that he is no longer the strongest man alive.  But then Clark learns of Zod.

So, Superman’s human life is a short lived one.  Even though the Fortress was damaged and he was told the process was irreversible… Clark gets his powers back off screen.  This leads to a dramatic fight in the city.  You know, for all the criticism Man of Steel gets for it’s destruction, Superman II has Superman carelessly throwing the criminals through building, the character beating each other into the ground and so on.  There is little concern for the city.

One of the other good points is the duplicitous nature of Lex Luthor.  Towards the beginning he breaks out of prison and then runs off to the Fortress of Solitude.  He starts listening to the information from Lara…considering Lara can hold conversations with Superman, I am not sure why she cannot react to Lex.   Luthor helps the Kryptonians attempt to take over the world (they promise to give him Australia).  But when things look tough, he is quick to side with Superman (for Survival).

One of the big problems is the film has a Superkiss that robs Lois of her memories of who Superman is…and he also goes back to the cafe to humiliate the trucker.  This is not Superman.  And his character is tarnished for a joke.  Superman II does not hold up, and is actually a weaker film than it’s predecessor.  And more recent Super-hero films are vastly superior.

Young Superman(Superman the Movie, 1978)

Superman_Movie_PosterRichard Donner’s Superman is often presented as a more upbeat and hopeful film than more recent Superhero efforts.  And, in a lot of ways, it is a brighter view overall.  Donner opens the film with life on Krypton.  His version of Krypton has influenced countless versions of Superman.  It became a ruling vision.  And I get it…it is a society and world at it’s end.  But the severely antiseptic frozen tundra look is actually unpleasant and does not really speak of an advanced society.  Jor-El is introduced presiding over the trial of General Zod and his army.  Well, him, Ursa and Non.  Not really an army.  What stands out was that in the middle of this trial, Zod tries to convince Jor-El to join him.  And then they are zapped by a giant reflective record sleeve.  Then, they never appear in the rest of the film.

Jor-El declare the planet is soon to die and is mocked by his fellow scientists who make him commit to staying on the planet.  We all know the story, found by the Kents, young Kal El is raised as a typical Kansas kid.  These moments are great.  They show the thought the Kents have tried to install in their son.    Clark’s struggle to not use his powers for only his gain is evident.  Clark wants to be the football star and get dates with cheerleaders.  But he also knows it would be a cheat to use his powers to succeed in that fashion.  And when Pa Kent dies?  Glenn Ford is barely on screen for any meaningful amount of time…and yet it is a real gut punch.

The Fortress of Solitude used to be a giant cave with a giant door.  Now it is a spiky crystal building with no doors.  Here he learns from holograms of his father.  When he enters the world, he is ready to be Superman.  One of the things Donner did right is that he fills the film with Superman…an it is Superman saving people over and over again.  Sure, he stops crime as well, but saving people is his main gig.

Lois Lane is shown as a tough reporter (who cannot spell) who has little notice of new Reporter Clark Kent, but then swoons when Superman appears on the screen.  This is not a negative, for one thing, she still follows her instincts when Superman shows up for an interview, clearly smitten with her.  Kidder and Reeve have terrific chemistry in the film and Lois is fun and daring.

We are introduced to Lex Luthor via his bumbling lackey Otis.  Ned Beatty is entertaining, though a bit over the top in his mindlessness.  Hackman’s Luthor is a change from the comics of the time.  He is still brilliant, but instead of super armor, he is simply a criminal mastermind.  It is a bit over the top, but Hackman makes it work.  The third spoke in the wheel is Valerie Perrine’s Miss Tessmacher.  I am unsure exactly what her purpose is.  I mean, Perrine is undeniably sexy in the role and appears in a variety of revealing outfits.  But she seems distant for a girlfriend, and yet a lot of what she does is lounge around.  She does play the role of “distraction”in part of Luthor’s plan.  Oh, and that plan…

Luthor is planning to make a land grab…this becomes a running thing for him in the movies.  He plans to blow California off the map and sell land.  I do not see how this really would be an effective plan.  Seriously, the guy who stole two missiles from the army and used them to blow up a sizeable chunk of land is going to be able to own and sell land?

Superman is a pretty fun movie with a really impressive cast.  The weakest moment is the weird “Superman spins the earth to Fix Things.  This was actually meant for the sequel, which Donner was already filming alongside this film.  But the studio wanted him to use it to give this a big bang of an ending.

But all in all, Superman the Movie is a fun film for kids of all ages.

 

Christmas Darkness (Black Christmas, 1974)

black_christmasHalloween is often cited as the father of the slasher genre.  But three years prior was Bob Clark’s Black Christmas.  If you are wondering why the name Bob Clark might sound familiar, there is a reason.  For about a decade, for 24 hours every Christmas, TNT aired back to back showings of Clark’s “A Christmas Story”.  Yeah, that guy who brought us a beloved holiday classic also gave us another, lesser known (but no less classic) holiday film.

Black Christmas is a little bit different in tone, of course.  It is set on Christmas Eve at a sorority house.  As the women engage in festivities, their house is plagued by an obscene caller who speaks in guttural cries.

The film is mainly focused on Jess (Olivia Hussey) who is pregnant, and set on having an abortion.  Her boyfriend, Peter (Keir Dullea), is dead set against it.  There is also a hunt for a young missing girl, and the first girl to die.  But nobody is sure if the sorority girls are running off or truly missing.

We the audience, of course, no better.  The killer is in the house, but what is his motive?  Why this house?  It is a mystery that the film never chooses to answer.  “Billy” has no origin story.  He just shows up and terrorizes the girls.  And it is an effective and unnerving choice.

Black Christmas is well acted, with great visuals.  Rather than focus on gore, it is focused on mood.  And it is powerful.  The film’s final shot as the credits begin to roll are chilling.  There is no music as the camera pulls away from the house.  Just a lone ringing telephone…

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