Friday, August 27, 2010

Superman (serial; Bennet 1948)

When I say that the 1948 Superman serial is disappointing, I don’t wish to give the impression that it is a bad piece of filmmaking. Far from it: while suffering from the same ultra low budgets as the two previously reviewed Batman serials, Superman is a far more ambitious effort, with more consistent writing, acting and production values. Or rather, in the case of the production values, consistent in their inconsistency. As a piece of the Man of Steel’s history, the serial is invaluable, given that it is the first ever live action adaptation of the character, and is only the third such adaptation following the radio series and Fleischer Studio animated shorts. And its faithfulness to the source material is astounding given the history of Hollywood to alter comic character source materials at random.

Yet, the disappointment remains, and the reason is a problem which has plagued Superman in all media, particularly in the early adaptations of the character: after the origin, the film doesn’t really know where to go with the character. How does one challenge Superman? Either the Man of Steel needs to go up against someone with immense power, skill and/or intellect in order to give him a proper threat, and/or Kal-El must go up against a moral/ethical challenge that he cannot merely punch his way out of. Sam Katzman’s Superman is no better at solving this issue than other adaptations, which is a shame, as the film begins on a promising note.

The first third of the serial covers the origins of the character and introduces many of the main elements of the Superman mythology, including Lois (Noel Neill), Jimmy (Tommy Bond), the Daily Planet, and Kryptonite. This section of the serial flies by at a breakneck pace to get the main story of the battle for the relativity reducer ray, with the planet Krypton and early life on the Kent farm being condensed into roughly twenty minutes of screen time. While this pacing does lead to many forced moments where characters make declarations of intent, while key events happen off screen (Ma and Pa Kent’s deaths are particularly brushed aside), this early portion of the serial is fairly exciting and involving, as we see how many of the iconic moments of the character’s story were in place this early on. Of particular note is the Krypton section of the story, and the handling of Superman’s father Jor-El. Nelson Leigh plays the role with real sense of weight that was an unexpected delight, as he verbally spars with the doubting council of Krypton’s elders about the fate of the planet. Yes, the destruction of the planet is mostly stock footage, but everything leading up to that point is given more attention and care than I expected. Certainly, the Krypton section of chapter one fares better than the Smallville section as far as writing and acting goes.
The problem with the fast pace however is that the serial ultimately runs out of material long before the finishing line of the fifteenth chapter. The Reducer Ray story is sound enough, with the idea of Superman needing to protect the ray from the clutches of the Spider Lady (Carol Foreman) making for a solid, if generic, through line, and the Spider Lady’s introduction offers promise of her being a slightly toned down femme fatale. Sadly, the narrative goes nowhere quickly, as the Spider Lady turns out to be little more than a stock villain shouting orders over the radio at her suit wearing thugs. The film isn’t helped by Foreman’s acting, who turns the Spider Lady into less of a master criminal than a pouting teenager. Thus the film is left with Superman fighting stock thugs for the rest of the film, and after opening up with the destruction of a planet, it is a bit of a let down.

The end result is that the film falls into a pattern that repeats endlessly with slight variation: Lois gets in trouble, Superman saves her; Jimmy gets in trouble, Kal-El saves him; Lois AND Jimmy get in trouble, and then Clark needs to save them. In between, the thugs attempt to either get the Reducer Ray, the secrets of the Reducer Ray, or a part of the Reducer Ray, and Superman stops them. Were the hero of the tale a little more vulnerable, it could have been a little more exciting, but its Superman, and placing him up against a bunch of thugs just doesn’t amp up the excitement level enough. Even nifty pulp ideas such as the villains creating a rocket launching device filled with Kryptonite is tossed away as the earliest convenient opportunity.

This doesn’t mean the serial is awful, just duller than a serial featuring Superman should be. There is fun to be had though, and plenty to interest fans of the character. For starters, Kirk Alyn deserves every bit of praise he has received for his performance in the title role. He plays Superman straight and with a sense of childlike joy, like he is playing a massive joke on the world and having a ball being the only one in on it. Noel Neill is a good counterpoint to Allen’s Superman, though all too often the writing makes her the butt of a number of sexist jokes typical of the period. Furthermore, Lois spends most of her time being rescued by the Man of Steel, thus denying Neill the chance to make Lois into a fully crafted character. Tommy Bond is ok as Jimmy, with a good comic rapport with Neill and Allen, though again, he is not given enough material to make his character all that distinctive. The trio of actors manage to carry the serial through its repetitive instalments and make the events fun, but by the end I wished they had more material to work with.
For all its faults, it is hard to hold them against Superman at the end of the day, given that many are typical of for serials in general and for the character of Superman regardless of the medium his story is being told in. It is just hard to make the film an honest recommendation when better versions of the character are available to watch. For hard core fan, Superman is a must see serial, though for all others, the serial only comes with a mild recommendation.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Neighbours Follow Up

Found this on you tube recently, and it is an interview that was done around the time of the release of Neighbors, which was reviewed here last month.

The video is errie given the events that would happen not too long afterwards, and Gene Shalit is as terrible an interviewer as ever, but it is highly worth watching to see how Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi were in the early 1980s. Enjoy!

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Expendables (Stallone 2010)

Sylvester Stallone’s greatest strength has always been his sincerity. The first two Rocky films, and the more recent Rocky Balboa are prime examples, with Stallone wearing his heart on his sleeve as we see a good man attempting to do his best to stay true too himself over the course of his life. Even the original First Blood, as much as it is a commercial thriller, comes from a very real and raw place.

However, this sincerity has also over the years proven to be Stallone’s greatest weakness, particularly when he wanders into political territory and presentations of “ideal masculinity.” Notably, this problem tends to come up most in his action films, and the results usually involve overblown, hyper-masculine displays, rampant paternalism, casual (and not so casual) misogyny, and a tendency to simplify complex issues into situations to be solved with a gun/knife/fists/any-other-weapon-of-choice. At the best of times, the films are so absurd that it is impossible for them to be taken seriously (Rambo III and Rocky IV come to mind), and at the worst of times, are so regressive and na├»ve as to insult the intelligence of the audience and offer a repugnant, ignorant presentation of a given topic (the Burma situation in the most recent Rambo being the worst offender). Stallone’s attempts to deny the cultural and political impact of his films by using the “mere entertainment” defence are undermined by his own claims regarding his desire to make his films personal statements, or at least reflect his values.

Thus, we come to The Expendables, Stallone’s latest action fest and one which has drawn much interest for its cast of action heroes, both past and present. The Expendables follows a group of soldiers of fortune, lead by Barney (Stallone) who become involved with the plight of a small country being run by a corrupt general and an ex-CIA agent (Eric Roberts). Barney and crew decide they want nothing to do with the job after a failed reconnaissance mission, but guilt and a desire to help the daughter of the general drives Barney to change his mind.

While something of an enjoyable romp, and hardly as insipid as the last Rambo, it is hard to come away from the film without feeling slightly disappointed and frustrated. With its premise of teaming up the legends of action cinema together, The Expendables held out the promise of being something more than a mere homage to the action films of old, of possibility being a film which took stock of where the action film genre and its stars have been, where they are, and where they are going. Indeed, with a title like The Expendables and a men on a mission premise, the film seemed to be on the path to offering some form of meta commentary about the manner in which the stars have fallen by the wayside. Unfortunately, the film settles for merely being a salute to what has come before, embracing Stallone’s ideas of aggressive masculinity being natural (and preferable to other forms), the importance of homosocial environments, and a guns-can-solve-anything attitude (or, if not guns, explosives). On this level the film is indeed fun and a romp, particularly as we get the opportunity to see old legends like Dolph Lungdren take to the screen along side current stars such as Jet Li.

Unfortunately, there is still that political side of the film, and the solutions offered to the issues raised in the film. US interventionist policy is at the heart of The Expendables, mixed with themes of fatherhood and parental responsibility. The political divide in the film is structured through the relationship between the country’s leader, General Gaza (David Zayas) and his daughter Sandra (Giselle Itie), as the corrupt father figure who himself is infantilized by ex-CIA agent Munroe (Roberts). As such, the film would seem to be a condemnation of America’s paternalistic treatment of other nations, trying to determine what is "best" for those abroad.

However, the film is structured in a manner that pits Barney as the competing, morally right father figure who opposes these forces, and the film builds towards Gaza's daughter’s acceptance and identification of Barney as the “good” parent whose values and ideals will become important in the rebuilding of the nation. As such, the film’s supposedly anti-interventionist politics are are contradictory, suggesting that the problem is not that the United States have chosen to unilaterally act as the father to second and third world countries, but that the occasional renegade forces of greed take the reins of such efforts. In some respects, it feels like an apology for the George W. Bush Jr. era foreign policies.

You will note of course that I have made repeated use of the word “paternalistic” in describing how the film handles its politics, and with good reason: the film contains a strongly regressive set of gender politics that leave no place for woman other than to adopt the “wisdom” of the male world view (of course, only one type of masculine identity exists in this film, so that is the wisdom of aggression and male privilege). In addition to the infantilized Sandra, the film has only one other female character in Lacy, played by Charisma Carpenter, whose talents are utterly wasted here. Lacy is part of the “subplot” (if two or three scenes can really make for a subplot) for the character Lee Christmas (Statham), and she is condemned early in the film for seeing a man other than Lee. Her reason for seeing someone else is sound: Lee disappears for months at a time, tells here nothing, and then expects her to just cosy on up to him when he returns. Unfortunately, the film never bothers to actually take Lee to task for his failings: it is Lacy who needs to learn the male code and submit to Lee’s “wisdom.” Her punishment for not doing so is to end up with an abusive boyfriend, as if that is the only other choice besides the emotionally neglectful Lee. Submit to Lee’s “wisdom” she ultimately does, not that it was avoidable. Given Lee’s surname of Christmas, what else could he be than a father like figure to her?

Yet, the film is so blaringly stupid as to bring into question as whether it can be taken seriously at all. Take the film’s approach to drug abuse and mental illness: these are not issues in need of being carefully treated, but instead can be solved with a good old fist fight and property damage. Well, as long as the mentally ill individual has a near death experience. I wont say which character has this subplot, but needless to say, the whole thing is fairly embarrassing and indicative of the level of which this film is working on as far as intelligence goes.

Yet, all throughout the film, you can feel the presence of Stallone and his damned sincerity. That he believes what he is selling here; that he isn’t capable of seeing just how idiotic the film he was produced is. It in turn allows the film to reach Ed Wood levels of idiocy and entertainment, as well as Ed Wood levels of pity. You can say what is wrong with the film, but Stallone will never get it. Just like he didn’t after Rocky IV. Or Cobra. Or Rambo.

As the end credits of The Expendables roll, the tired song “The Boys are Back in Town” plays. Indeed, the boys are back in town. I just wish they had grown up a little, rather than reliving the old days over again.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

New Review: Late Tomorrow

My review of The Expendables will be up tomorrow night. See you then!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Blog "Relaunch": Friday Aug 20, 2010

As you may have noticed over the past two weeks, not much has been posted as in other months. This has been due to a mixture of a busy real life, technical problems and a few new projects that I have been attempting to get off the ground. This has lead to most of my reviews being posted as soon as I complete one, and given that I wish to have a review up each week, or at least an article, I feel like I have been attempting to barrel through these things with limited quality control.

Well, that is going to change. There will be a "relaunch" on August 20th, 2010. At that point, I should have three reviews finished and ready to go, and it is my intent to post these every Friday. With any luck, this will correct the delays that have come as of late.

So see you on the 20th folks!

Monday, August 9, 2010

Quick Reviews!

Ok, due to a technical problem and a few real life things to sort out, my review has been delayed till Tues/Wed. However, here are some quick reviews I am posting for films I am either not intending to do full reviews of, or want to wait on them for.

Inception: Brilliant, brilliant film. I will review this in full once it hits DVD/Blu Ray so I can go over the film in detail. Till then, go see it!

The Other Guys - A good film from the crew behind Anchorman, and perhaps the most sly effort from the group, examining both modern conceptions of masculinity and how they tie into American concepts of wealth and success.

Escape from New York - ok, I have seen this film a million times, but the new Blu Ray looks fantastic. However, no extras? And what is up with the crappy menu system MGM?

Help the Autism Women's Network!

The Autism Woman's Network needs your help!

If you are American and wish to support the AWN, please vote for the organization to recieve funding from the Pepsi Refresh Project to help hold workshops across America for women on the Autism spectrum. In fact, there goals are as follows:

•To organize 5 Workshops with focus on female specific autism qualities
•To provide online support & mentoring for autistic females & families
•To secure Autism Women's Network as a non-profit organization

Please vote here! And vote daily!!

Also, want to know more? Check out the Autism Women's Network website and No Stereotypes Here!

Back tomorrow with a new audio review! And no, it isn't Inception (though I will talk about it briefly in the review).

Monday, August 2, 2010

Updates and RIP Tom Mankiewicz

Hey folks! Due to a busy week, including a new project and some unexpected work which needed to be done, the Inception review is delayed for the next little while. However, a reivew will be up later this week, and a cool new project hopefully not long after :)

On a sad note though, long time Hollywood screen writer Tom Mankiewicz passed away at the age of 68. Mankiewicz worked on a few of the Roger Moore era Bond films and perhaps most famously for being the "creative consultant" (aka the real writer) on Richard Donner's Superman: The Movie. May he RIP and God be with his family.