ReelThoughts: What if Man of Steel was made in 1978?

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My first editorial on ReelReviews!

WHAT IF ‘MAN OF STEEL’ WAS MADE BACK IN 1978?

A constant refrain we hear from Synderverse fans is that their crappy movies only got awful reviews because people “unfairly” compared them to the earlier big screen adaptations. That is why Wonder Wonder was “fairly” rated and got a positive review, they say. If Man of Steel had been released first and made in 1978, audiences and critics would have seen IT as the “definitive” version of Superman and loved it.

So let’s examine this scenario.

Go back to 1978 and imagine Superman: The Movie was never made. POOF! It’s gone from existence. No Salkind producing team, no Richard Donner as director, no sweeping iconic John Williams theme, and Christopher Reeve remains an unknown young stage actor from Julliard.

Without that movie to “taint” audience’s views of Superman, the creative team behind Man of Steel arrives in a time machine and Warner Bros. gives them the go-ahead to film THEIR “vision” for Superman using 1978 filming techniques and actors. Zack Snyder uses a 1978 film crew to capture David Goyer’s script exactly as it originally written. 1978  actors are hired to fit Snyder’s vision for DC comics: Obscure TV actor Grant Goodeve (who is the same age as Christopher Reeve and looks very much like him and Henry Cavill, but plays dour, serious roles) is cast in the title role. Ann Margaret (then a redhead actress in her late 30s) is cast as Lois Lane. Yaphet Kotto is Perry White. As in real life, Warner Bros. insist on hiring big name stars, so screen legend Orson Welles is hired to play Goyer’s version of Jor-El, Dustin Hoffman is hired to play Goyer’s version of General Zod, and Bruce Dern gets to be David Goyer’s Pa Kent and is killed on screen by a tornado.

The film eats up a HUGE budget as the screenplay calls for massive destruction porn and is done in the tone of a dreary, ugly, humorless, late 1970s action filled disaster flick (in “sci-fi” drag) about an “alien invasion”. Grant Goodeve has almost no dialogue and doesn’t have much to do on set but stand around and look glum, and spend weeks on end shooting fight scenes with Dustin Hoffman, as use wire work to plow into each other while “flying”. Meanwhile, their stunt doubles throw each other into “buildings”. Pyrotechnics are used to knock down the “Metropolis” set endlessly and blow up half the “city”. Snyder directs Hoffman to talk like he has marbles in his mouth while screaming lines like “I WILL FIND HIM!!!” Ann Margaret gets to say lines like “If we’re done measuring dicks, can you have your people show me what you found?” Since the digital technique doesn’t exist yet, much of the cinematography achieves the desired “shakey-cam” effect that Snyder wants by having overcaffinated camera men riding around set on lawnmowers with handheld cameras. Bruce Dern’s stunt double is injured during the tornado scene, and filming is delayed for several weeks.

Since the PG-13 rating doesn’t yet exist in 1978, the film gets rated R for extreme violence and use of language, with the graphic depiction of Superman breaking a character’s neck shocking 1970s audiences. (Films from that era competing for the same adult audiences include The Deer Hunter, The Fury, and I Spit On Your Grave) This becomes the 1970s audiences first look at a big budget theatrical superhero movie, trying to appeal to audiences who grew up on George Reeves playing Superman as a lovable all-American boy scout.

And there you have it, a world where the original “Superman” movie as we know it was never made, and the world got Hack Snyder’s vision for the character instead.

How well do you think the movie would have been received?

ReelReviews #108: It’s Alive (2009)

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MARCH 16, 2017 SCREENING: IT’S ALIVE (2009)

It’s Remade! Most people complain about endless Hollywood remakes. The odd thing here is that there’s an entire valid case to made for remaking It’s Alive. The original film is not any sort of beloved classic and while it got a good response, the style of filmmaking doesn’t work in the 21st century and the story could be entirely updated 35 years later. The first thing many modern audiences said about the 1974 movie upon seeing it is “This movie could use a remake”, and they have a valid point. And thus, I can’t bash this movie for being a remake. I can, however, bash how they decided to do the remake.

The biggest change (and a strange choice, IMO) is that the killer baby in this version looks just like a normal human baby (except for some bizarre reveal in the third act where it inexplicably has sharp pointed teeth to make it look “scary”) The “normal” looking baby is still capable of somehow massacring multiple full grown adults with its bare hands, so the result is some very unrealistic looking CGI to create a fake “normal” looking human infant in 99% of the scenes. This turns out to the biggest flaw in the movie, and one that wouldn’t have been an issue if the premise of the movies were reversed (a “normal” looking baby played a real baby in the 1974 movie because the special effects technology was primitive, but a fully mutated deformed monstrosity in the 2009 remake)

Most of the bad reviews of this movie couldn’t get past the obviously-fake CGI “normal” baby, and I believe the film does indeed deserve to be blasted for that problem. However, other aspects of the movie also really hurt the film, with a weak script, and short running time that didn’t allow the story to be fully fleshed out, or effective.

On the other hand, this movie does not deserve the across-the-board “ZERO STARS! IT SUCKS!” scathing reviews that it got. The remake of Its Alive is very flawed, but it does have some good things going for it. Strangely, the best part of the movie was Bijou Philips, the model-turned-actress daughter of singer John Philips (of “The Mamas and the Papas”) fame. Philips is basically the lead in this movie and has to ensure all the emotional gravitas as the mother of the evil baby. The film requires her to slowly realize her baby is murdering people and that she is shocked and horrified by this fact, but tolerates it because of the love she feels for the newborn as its mother. Philips put in an amazing performance here (which surprised me since I didn’t consider her to be a real “actress”) and could have rightfully won a prize for the role if she weren’t in such a weak movie overall. Likewise, the last scene and final moment of the movie deserves to be up there with classic horror films like “Psycho” and “The Shining”. Yes, I’m serious! Without giving it away, I spent the entire movie wondering how they would resolve the story, and the film’s ending is truly heartbreaking and haunting, leaving the viewer feeling anguished at what’s happened. It’s a tragedy this brilliant ending couldn’t be part of an actual GOOD movie. Many horror films resort to one last cheap “scare” to end the movie (usually “he’s not REALLY dead!”) , others come up with more clever twists, but very few manage to “scare” you in a way that truly makes the audience feel unnerved and creeped out by what they’ve just seen. It’s Alive manages to do that, and to top the nicely chilling of the original 1974 movie! Despite being a really lousy movie overall, I’m actually awarding it an extra half a star for the great ending. The only downside is you have to see the rest of this crappy movie for the ending to be effective.

For the record, original It’s Alive producer/writer/director Larry Cohen absolutely loathed the remake of his movie. I don’t loathe it, but I do feel it was a big missed opportunity.

* 1/2 out of ****

ReelReviews #107: It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive (1987)

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MARCH 15, 2017 SCREENING: ISLAND OF THE ALIVE (1987)

The good news: Unlike many other “third movies” in a trilogy, this movie isn’t a complete joke that ruins everything you liked about the first two movies. The bad news? It’s still a disappointment compared to the first two. It’s watchable, yes, but unsatisfying.

Ironically, the third film provided a great setup for building on the universe from the first two movies and giving the audience something much bigger and bolder. The most obvious question from the first two films is what would the killer mutant babies actually be like IF they grew up? Additionally, there is the question of how the evil mutant babies would interact with their own kind, what they would do if left their own devices, and there was very little in the way of actually SEEING the babies in full detail from the first films because of the makeup limitations of those movies. It’s Alive III addresses all those points – and in many cases, it provides a perfectly valid answer to those questions. But alas, something is still missing.

Compared to Basket Case 3 (which shifted the tone so much from the first movie, it was like they were intentionally trying to make a bad joke), Island of the Alive sticks to the style of the first two movies very well. The film opens in a courtroom where they argue over the fate of one of the mutant babies (finally seen in full detail thanks to stop-motion animation). Without going into too much detail, the killer mutant babies are eventually quarantined on an island that is restricted to the public, hence the title. Of course, there wouldn’t be much of a plot if they just stayed there forever and no one ever saw them again, so a few years later, they decide to send an expedition out to track down if the killer mutant babies are still alive on the island.
None of this (aside from perhaps the tense courtroom scene where the father has to “touch” the baby in the cage to “prove” it’s safe) plays out as horrifically and dark as it could from the way it sounds on paper. I think part of the problem is that that Island of the Alive was made a decade after the first two movies, and the late 80s setting simply gives the movie a different feel than its mid-1970s counterparts. (I have no idea why there was such a large gap in time between the filming of the second and third movies). Strangely, 70s cult horror star Karen Black shows up in this one as a disgruntled girlfriend of one of the characters, and I found her role unintentionally funny. Even Rob Zombie couldn’t seem to use Karen Black in a serious role. It’s Alive III just seems to lack the same quiet, creepy, dark vibe of the original movie, despite having the same writer/director.

The film does deserve kudos for an interesting script that eventually reveals that the mutant babies mature at age four and are able to reproduce, and communicate with each other through some type of sign language and/or telepathy. This results in some type of “Captain Phillips” type scenario where one of the characters is held hostage on a boat commanded by the mutant babies. The scene itself, however, was neither funny & campy nor terrifying and creepy, it was just sort of there, and make me shrug, “eh?”

The film provides a satisfying conclusion to its own events, but as part of a trilogy, it’s the weakest of the trio. Whether it’s worth watching is really up to you.

** out of ****

ReelReviews #106: It Lives Again (1978)

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MARCH 14, 2017 SCREENING: IT LIVES AGAIN (1978)

The film poster summarizes this entire two hour movie very easily: The killer mutant baby from “Its Alive” is back: only this time there are three of them.

Following the rule of sequels, the second film in the trilogy gives the audience what was best about the first movie, but ups the ante and delivers more action, thrills, and violence than its predecessor. In many cases, this type of lazy filmmaking (“give ‘em what they got before, multiplied 3X!) results in an inferior follow-up movie. Here, it actually works…although the film is still a step down from its immediate predecessor. Part of the reason “It Lives Again” works so well is that filmmaker Larry Cohen wisely got John P. Ryan back to reprise his role from the first film, but gave him something entirely different to do in the sequel. In “It Lives Again”, he’s there to warn the parents of other mutant babies what they are encountering in their life, and he’s changed course 180 degrees from the film movie, since now he is trying to PROTECT the mutant babies rather than destroy them.

The entire “hook” of the sequel having THREE killer mutant babies instead of just one little nasty monster is actually the most disappointing aspect of the film. This concept could have made for some very interesting scenarios, but it is not merely as fun as its sounds. For starters, evil mutant baby killer #1 and #2 get killed off about halfway through the movie, so the climax ends with a race-against-the-clock to stop just one killer baby, just like the first film. Secondly, the three evil mutant babies don’t even interact with each other or appear on screen in the same scenes, so what was the point of including them in the first place?

Aside from John P. Ryan (who – SPOILER ALERT—gets killed off in this movie, disappointing me since he was the best thing about the first two films) the only other character to return from the first film is the local police inspector, who looks strangely like a 1970s version of 1980s Donald Trump in both movies. The film eventually runs low on steam, but it has a solid “several months later” ending where the poor father in this film assumes John P. Ryan’s role from the start of the movie of visiting future parents pregnant with evil mutant babies, thus hinting that the cycle will continue…endlessly.

Overall, I liked the movie, but it falls slightly short of the first film. Still, given the fact that it’s a sequel to the type of movie that mainstream audiences and critics would immediately turn their noses up at, It Lives Again has something going for it. It’s worth checking out, especially if you liked the first one.

** 1/2 out of ****

ReelReviews #105: It’s Alive (1974)

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MARCH 13, 2017 SCREENING: IT’S ALIVE! (1974)

In a strange twist of irony, I spent the month of March going from the most critically acclaimed Hollywood movies (namely, looking at past “Best Picture” Oscar winners) to the films LEAST likely to win prizes and critical acclaim: nasty B-grade horror films. The 1974 cult classic “It’s Alive” is actually much better than its reputation would suggestion. For an obscure low-budget Hollywood film, it has some A-list credentials. For example, famous Hitchcock composer Bernard Hermann did the score for this film – and the music is every bit as memorable as his more famous compositions. The makeup designer is Rick Baker, who would go on to do the makeup for An American Werewolf in London (1981), which launched him to fame as Hollywood’s go-to guy for top-notch special effects makeup. The lead male actor in the film, John P. Ryan (apparently “best known” for the 1985 movie Runaway Train, which I’ve never seen) puts in a terrific performance that requires an entire range of emotions and actions for his character, and writer/director/producer Larry Cohen’ story of a deformed mutant baby going a killing spree was unique and “creative” for the time, to say the least. But with all that, is the film actually good? Surprisingly, yes it is.

A few months earlier, I screened the similarly “ugly cult classic” horror film series Basket Case, which I haven’t yet reviewed on my blog. To put it simply, the first one was really compelling, the second was watchable but stupid, and the third was a pile of dung that I shut off halfway through. I wondered if the It’s Alive trilogy (and its 2009 remake) would suffer a similar fate. They did not. It’s Alive, though certainly shunned by “mainstream” film critics and considered some cheap horror film, is a compelling and dark melodrama. Larry Cohen wisely stuck with the “leave much of the horror to the audience’s imagination” rule, and while this may be partly inspired by the difficulty of showing the killer mutant baby on a rampage using low budget 1974 special effects, it works.

The film has a high level of graphic violence, but between the grisly things that occur on screen, the real heart of the story is the mutant baby’s perfectly normal, middle-America parents, who already have a perfectly normal first child who is sixth grade during the film’s chain of events. The film manages the incredibly difficult task of A) Getting the audience to suspend disbelief that such an awful thing could actually happen to this couple, and B) Making it plausible how society at large would deal with the problem. In the movie, the problem with the “Davis baby” eventually becomes a nationwide panic. As the baby’s father struggles to come to grips with what’s happening, he has a moving segment where he compares his family’s nightmarish life to the story Frankenstein because the audience associates Frankenstein as the name of the monster — rather than the scientist who created him. By the end of the film, the father finally has to confront the fact the baby is still his biological child and identifies him as its father, no matter how inhuman and monsterious s the baby acts and looks. The film has a lot of subtle social commentary on the changing role of the American family in the 1970s, even though its first and foremost a violent “things that go bump in the night” kind of movie. The final line the movie was also an excellent punch-in-the-gut for audiences after the horrific events were seemingly over.

The film was very compelling and exciting, regardless of its low budget and amateur filmmaking origins. Highly recommended.

*** out of ****

ReelReviews #107: 1960s Best Picture winner: Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

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MARCH 6, 2017 SCREENING: LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962)

 

Ah, the motion picture epic.  Lawrence of Arabia has it in spades and is one of the finest examples of “larger than life” movies from that era:  it’s running time is nearly four hours, and includes an overture, an intermission (I watched the movie over two nights and turned it off at the half way mark the first night, unaware that the movie would have done it by itself in ten minutes and announced the Intermission), lush gorgeous color film, huge action sequences,  and a cast of now critically acclaimed A-list actors (most notably was Peter O’Toole, who was an “up and coming” actor at the time). Lawrence of Arabia had everything going for it.

 

Why it is then, that I didn’t care for this movie?

 

Simply put, I found this movie unengaging. For me, it was a classic example of “lots of sound and fury, signifying nothing” To be fair, certain scenes were memorable for me, and I liked some of the dialogue exchanges (for example, in response to T.E. Lawrence noting that Arabs are associated with the dessert, Prince Feisal quips: “No Arab loves the desert. We love water and green trees. There is nothing in the desert and no man needs nothing.”) The problem for me, however, is that these enjoyable portions of the movie didn’t add up to anything particularly interesting.  The film has a lot of plot twists and interesting characters, but in order to pay attention to what’s happening, you have to be drawn by the story (and to be fair, the story of a impeccable British officer being assimilated into Arab culture and basically becoming one of them IS by nature a very cinematic premise for a movie), and I felt Lawrence of Arabia wasn’t able to accomplish that. It dragged on and on and on, and I just found myself waiting for the movie to finally end.

 

One issue I had with Lawrence of Arabia is that in spite of its timeless look and beautiful big budget filmmaking, it’s very much a product of its time. Apparently much of the controversy about T.E. Lawrence is that the real life figure was possibly gay and attracted to Arab men, but the film has nothing to do with that rumor and its difficult to find the movie version of him interesting in spite of Peter O’Toole’s excellent performance. The Arab characters in the movie are almost exclusively played by non-Arabs, and sometimes very obviously British actors, using eyeliner and mascara to look the part in spite of having blue eyes and other unlikely Arabian features (Hispanic actor Anthony Quinn even apparently wore a false nose for this movie) . For what it’s worth, most of their acting was excellent, but I felt more realistic actors could have been cast in those roles.

 

Lawrence of Arabia is not a “bad” film, it’s just not a film that appealed to me in spite of everything it had going for it. To me, it was a wasted four hours of my life that I’ll never get back, and made me wish I had chosen to watch The Sound of Music (another 1960s Best Picture winner I have never seen) instead.  Apparently, such filmmaking giants as George Lucas, Sam Peckinpah, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott, Brian De Palma, Oliver Stone, and Steven Spielberg have all cited this movie as some type of masterpiece that inspired them to become filmmakers. All I can is that truly shows that movie reviews are subjective, as I can’t think of a single thing I felt the movie contributed to cinema, no matter how polished and expertly made it was.

 

In one word: Bland.

 

**   out of ****

 

ReelReviews #106: 1920s Best Picture winner: Sunrise (1927)

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MARCH 5, 2017 SCREENING: SUNRISE: A SONG OF TWO HUMANS (1927)

 

Here’s a little trivia that most people probably aren’t aware of: there were actually TWO “Best Picture” winners at the first annual Academy Awards ceremony in 1929—and it wasn’t because of a tie-vote.  “Wings” and “Sunrise” won for different reasons, in two SEPARATE “Best Picture” categories (one was for “Outstanding” Picture that got the most favorable response from audiences, and the other was for “Unique and Artistic Picture” that was deemed would have the most impact on history). The “Best Picture” winner that everyone remembers that year is the “popular” one:  Wings.   “Sunrise”, though remembered as a classic silent film, is not often remembered as the Oscar winner for Best Picture.  As the forgotten winner of the two “Best Picture” winners that year, I decided to give it its due and check out the movie.

 

“Sunrise” had the more difficult task at winning me over, since it is basically a romantic melodrama, whereas Wings was an action-adventure historical epic with some romance thrown in a subplot.  “Sunrise” also was complicated in that its plot contains material that is very unbelievable and requires the audience to suspend disbelief. Most notably, we have to buy that the husband in the movie would be driven by a sudden impulse to try and murder his wife, and he’d come to his senses, and eventually she’d forgive him and they’d live happily ever after. In spite of all that, Sunrise started off with a slow build and sucked me into its world so well that by the time of the ending shot (naturally, it was a sunrise coming up over the mountains) and ‘THE END’ roll credits scene, I felt compelling to give this 90 year old silent movie a standing ovation at 2 o’clock in the morning.

 

Sunrise has some great direction, cinematography, art direction, and acting from its silent screen actors (Janet Gaynor and the lesser known George O’Brien put in some excellent performances as a sort of “everyman” and “everywoman” average couple). However, where it really shined and rightfully deserved to win “Unique and Artistic Picture” was its use of sound – yes, sound in a “silent” movie.  The Blu-Ray noted that the film was acclaimed for its new “Fox Movietone sound-on-film system”, which I had never heard of and which became obsolete only a year or two later when actual sound movies began to be released. What it meant is that although the movie was indeed filmed without sound and has no dialogue scenes, there was a system used in post-production to synchronize sound effects and music with the entire movie. Since NONE of this sound was recorded live as the movie was being made, they did a truly amazing job and brought the movie to life: cars honk, crowds jeer, and people at an amusement park cheer, thunder roars, and key moments of the movie are underscored with sweeping music cues.

 

Likewise, for a drama, the film is sure to include some fun moments of humor to break up a lot of the tension and provide a more diverse range for the movie.  This becomes more common in the third act of the movie, especially a very funny sequence with a runaway piglet that still holds up 90 years later.

 

“Wings” most likely deserved its Best Picture win as well (disclaimer: I haven’t seen “Wings”), but since Sunrise was not competing with it, I can safely say that Sunrise, more than any other past “Best Picture” I evaluated during the 2017 Oscar season, certainly deserved its win for “Unique and Artistic picture”. It is excellent on all levels, and has stood the test of time.

 

*** ½ out of ****