the film snob

A cyberspace journal about my experiences as an NYU film school grad student, reviews of current and classic films, film and TV news, and the rants and raves of an admitted (and unapologetic) film snob.

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Esse Quam Videri -- To be, rather than to appear

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut

I write film and TV reviews at Here are synopsis' and links to those reviews.

In anticipation of viewing the never-before-seen Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut, I rescreened the original. It had been years since I’d seen it and I wanted to be able to perform my duties accurately and fairly. I remembered the theatrical release of Superman II as a thrill and a joy so I wasn’t really surprised when I had much the same reaction when watching it again this week.

I came to this new version, not with trepidation or fear, but with the sort of excitement that one would expect when something you already like has been made even better.

What I’m about to say may be tantamount to heresy to the fanboys out there, but I confess that Richard Donner’s cut of Superman II did not tip the planet from it’s axis, did not stop time, did not, in any perceptible way, change my life.

I’m sorry.

Perhaps some explanation is needed...

The original Superman is only half a movie. Director Richard Donner (The Omen, The Lethal Weapon quadrilogy, Ladyhawke) always intended to make Mario Puzo’s (The Godfather) massive script into a single film. But when running times and budgetary constraints made a single film impossible, the project was broken in half and turned into two films that were to be shot concurrently.

Superman was rushed into production and then release where it opened to wide critical and popular acclaim. With only a quarter of what was to become Superman II left to film, Donner still found himself over budget, over schedule and suddenly at odds with producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind over creative elements of the story, namely the addition of camp humor that Donner felt was wholly incongruous with the tone of the film.

After screen-legend Marlon Brando was kicked off the film and his scenes were hacked from screenplay--the result of haggling with the producers over his cut of the film’s profits--Donner ardently insisted that Brando’s crucial contributions remain. Rather than take his opinions into account, the Salkinds instead shocked everyone by sacking their popular director as well, and brought Richard Lester in to replace him.

Donner’s banishment angered many of the cast and crew who left with him, including actor Gene Hackman (Lex Luthor) who refused to shoot any more scenes. As a result, Lester took the reigns of the film and, while he kept large chunks of Donner’s work, he reshot major portions while completely rewriting others two years after they were originally filmed. The result was more to the liking of the Salkinds--campier and without a hint of Marlon Brando. Though Donner was offered co-directing credits, he turned them down after screening the first few minutes of the film and walking out in revulsion.

When Superman II opened, it, like its predecessor, was hailed as a wonderful work of escapist cinema. But many knew that the film they were seeing was not Donner’s original vision, and therefore, the far superior version. That was lost to them forever.

Until now.

To cast a wide enough net to synopsize both films, Superman II opens just after the first film ends, in which Lois Lane discovers Clark Kent’s secret. When Superman discovers the only way he can be with Lois is to give up his superpowers, he does so in the name of love. Meanwhile, the trio of Krytonian malcontents--General Zod, Ursa and Non--escape the one-dimensional floating prison into which Jor-El trapped them in the first film and arrive on Earth, intent on destroying all who resist their rule. Suddenly, Superman must try to retrieve his powers and save the world from his fathers’ nemesis’, all of whom have identical powers to his.

So what’s changed?


• Whereas Lester’s version of the evil trio’s trial and banishment from the first film begins with them being caught in the act and is actually reedited so as to ignore that fact that Marlon Brando had any part in it whatsoever, Donner’s version reconstructs the scene as it ran in the original Superman while using different camera angles.

• Whereas Lester wrote a completely different beginning set in a Paris under siege from terrorists, Donner’s film moves directly from the trio’s banishment to their fortuitous escape. In Lester’s version, they escape after a nuclear detonation (the ticking terrorist bomb which Superman tossed into outer space) breaks them free. In Donner’s imagining, one of the nuclear missiles Lex Luthor stole and Superman redirected out of the atmosphere does the same job.

• Whereas Lester’s version left Paris and pretty much moved straight to Niagara Falls where Clark and Lois pose as newlyweds in order to expose a hotel racket taking advantage of vacationers, Donner sets up a scene in which Lois becomes convinced Clark is actually Superman in disguise. Attempting to prove it, she flings herself out of the window, secure in the knowledge that Clark will have to swoop in as Superman and rescue her. Rescue her he does, but not in any way that gives away his secret identity. This scene would be re-written by Lester and appear later in his version of the film when Lois throws herself into the rushing water.

• Whereas Lester’s version was re-written to have a clumsy Clark Kent inadvertently reveal his true identity after accidently falling into the Honeymoon suite’s fireplace, Donner’s original concept for the scene involved Lois shooting Clark at point-blank range to prove he was invulnerable. This was Donner’s intention all along though the scene had yet to be shot when he was kicked off. So how did he pull it off for this DVD release? Luckily this is the scene Christopher Reeve and Margo Kidder first performed as screen tests for their parts. By skillfully cutting the two tests together, Donner has his scene. Crude, but effective.

• Whereas Lester gives Superman a conversation with his long-dead mother in the Fortress of Solitude before he decides to give up his powers, Donner’s version was shot opposite Marlon Brando who here rails against his son’s irresponsibility and glares wrathfully at Lois as his son blasts him in return. While Lester’s version has the great double-exposure moment as Superman vanishes in the chamber and Clark Kent steps out, Donner’s exchange between father and son is, without a doubt, a far more powerful and stunning piece of filmmaking.

• Whereas Lester’s version has the unholy trio defacing Mt. Rushmore and putting their own images in the place of the presidents, in Donner’s version, they topple the Washington Memorial.

• Whereas Lester’s version of the climactic battle in the Fortress of Solitude is accompanied by silly super-weapons and flights-of-fancy, Donner’s version is far more pared down, raw, and cuts straight to Superman’s delicious double-cross.

• Whereas Lester’s version uses a telepathic kiss to erase Lois’ memory of Clark Kent’s alter ego (an element actually in keeping with the original comic books), Donner’s version utilizes the same technique Superman used in the first film--flying around the world so quickly as to turn time back upon itself--to set everything back as it was before, including Lois’ memory. Shortly before Donner was catapulted from the film, this was the be the second film’s ending, not the first’s and was to come after General Zod and his minions throw Lois to her death down one of the crevasses in Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. When it was decided that it would fit better at the end of the first film if Lois were to die in the earthquake, Donner planned on coming up with another ending to the predicament in the second film--a decision he never had the opportunity to make on account of his ousting.

What should be all too obvious at this point is that the single greatest difference between Lester and Donner’s versions is the inclusion of Marlon Brando. And it is here that all those who lambasted Lester’s cut as a travesty and Donner’s as the superior version are utterly and absolutely correct. You simply don’t remove scenes involving one of the greatest actors in American history and threading a plot line that was fundamental to the story, and hope that it won’t go unnoticed.

The scenes where Donner uses Brando are unarguably the stronger and make for a far more dramatic and compelling film. That said, much of the rest of Donner’s film feels cobbled together, fraught with holes and patched together with twine and bailing wire. Perhaps this is not his fault. After all, this cut is comprised of his unused footage, some of Lester’s footage, and screen tests. And Donner readily admits that there are scenes he was never able to film that would have fleshed this version out and made it more fluid. I realize he can only do so much with what he has and what he has done with what he has is extraordinary. However, critiquing this film singularly on its own merits, it doesn’t flow or have any sense of narrative balance.

Furthermore, I actually agree with some of Lester’s alterations. Donner’s scene where Lois figures out who Clark is and risks life and limb to prove it, is a great scene and far superior to what replaced it, but comes far too early in the film to sustain the drama for the remainder of the film (Lester’s version comes midway through).

Donner carries on throughout this DVD about how much of a horrible travesty the theatrical release of Superman II was, but let’s face it, that is simply not true. As much as Donner complains and as much as he has reason to, the Lester version is not a grotesque aberration of his vision. It may not have been Donner’s original concept and that concept may indeed have been the far more muscular, but -- and this is no affront to him or his plans -- Lester’s release is still a fine film and stands up quite well all on its own. Yes, Lester’s Superman II is far too campy, but it also brings a playfulness that really works and rings true.

Truth is, I actually miss some of Lester’s contributions. They worked. Some quite well. Let’s face it, the original version is not at all bad. Frankly, I’d love to see Superman II: The Brandon Fibbs’ Cut, a hybrid taking the best of both versions.

To read the full review, click here.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Evolution's Captain


According to The Hollywood Reporter, the book "Evolution's Captain: The Dark Fate of the Man Who Sailed Charles Darwin Around the World," written by Peter Nichols, is to be made into a movie.

Revolving around the relationship of Robert FitzRoy, the captain of the HMS Beagle, and Charles Darwin, the ship's young naturalist, Evolution's Captain will trace the two men's 30-year relationship and their ongoing debate over the theory of evolution.

While my screenplay focuses almost exclusively on the men's five-year journey aboard the Beagle, this adaptation sounds almost exactly like what I've been pouring all my creative energy into.

I suppose in some ways it's validation for my assertions that the story of Darwin's life and voyage on the Beagle is inherently dramatic.

And it's not as if Hollywood hasn't made two versions of similar stories before. Just within the last year, two Truman Capote movies hit the silver screen. Some years back, two Wyatt Earp films were released almost simultaneously.

But still...


Monday, November 27, 2006

Battle of the Bonds

The last issue of Entertainment Weekly gave a rundown of each of the Bond films, from best to worst.

My opinion deviated from theirs quite substantially, so, for fun, I drafted my own list.

A friend who found out about the list and is interested in filling in the holes of his 007 education asked for a copy and then suggested that I should just blog the entire thing since it will, no doubt, be the sort of thing over which we will all have very differing opinions.

So, take a look, and let me how you would rate this, the most resilient and durable film franchise in Hollywood history. (It is too early to integrate
Casino Royale into this list, though you can read my review here.)

1) Goldfinger: The 1964 Aston Martin DB5 with all the perks, Oddjob and his killer bowler hat, gold-painted women, bisecting laser beams, one of the best lines in the series ("Goldfinger, do you expect me to talk?" "No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!"), and, of course, Pussy Galore. No, really, that's her name! The third film is the classic that set the bar for all that came after it.

2) The Spy Who Loved Me: I grew up with Roger Moore as Bond. Sue me. Like Goldfinger, this classic has it all: a car that converts to a submarine, an undersea lair, exotic locales, a wonderfully anachronistic electronica score, a beautiful Russian code-named Agent XXX, orthodontically menacing Jaws, and the stunt to beat all stunts--Bond skiing off a cliffside and popping a Union Jack-emblazoned parachute.

3) On Her Majesty's Secret Service: George Lazenby may not have possessed the gravity necessary to do more than a single film after Connery left him the reigns, but boy did make the most of the one he had. If for nothing else, this is one where we meet Mrs. Bond in the ravishing Diana Rigg. (While in Switzerland a number of years ago, I couldn't resist ascending the mountain atop which Blofeld's lair still stands).

4) Goldeneye: Oh-so-suave Pierce Brosnan jump-started the hibernating series with this polished entry that goes from gambling in Monte Carlo to a breathtaking tank ride through the streets of Russia.

5) From Russia with Love: Yes, it's slow at times, the plot is the most stripped down, and Bond is nearly gadget-less, but Russia plays more like a John le Carre novel than a rip-snorting Bond film. Nuanced and layered with political intrigue, this one pops from the sewers of Istanbul to Rosa Klebb's poison-tipped loafers with effortless ease.

6) For Your Eyes Only: The second of only two Moore films that I actually thrill to, Eyes is a serious outing but has a rock-climbing sequence for the ages.

7) The Living Daylights: Give Timothy Dalton a break. I'm one of the few people who actually liked where they were trying to take Bond in the late 80s--darker and edgier. Audiences weren't ready to let go of the Bond lampooning just yet which is a shame, because this story of a duplicitous defection and the lone, beautiful cello player who knows the truth is suave and gritty in a way that pre-figured audiences appetites come Casino Royale.

8) Dr. No: The first film and one that just gets better with age. Everything is brand new, never before seen, and therefore, intoxicating. A rough-around-the-edges Bond, Monty Norman's sensational theme, Ursula Andress' iconic walk up the beach in the newly-invented bikini, and the baddie with a secret lair and a nefarious plan to boot. It poured a mold all the films live and die by, even 40 years later.

9) Thunderball: SPECTRE, Blofeld, rocket packs, underwater battles, stolen nuclear weapons, and gorgeous Bahama settings. This is perhaps one of the most beloved (and spoofed) of all the Bond films.

10) You Only Live Twice: You can't possibly go wrong with a secret lair hidden deep inside a volcano.

11) The World is Not Enough: Bond looks after the daughter of an oil tycoon who may not be the helpless victim she claims to be. Beginning the downward slide, but still enjoyable.

12) Tomorrow Never Dies: This one gets better on repeat viewings, thankfully. A media baron villain is, admittedly, a silly premise, though the part of me that adores Citizen Kane finds it brilliant.

13) The Man with the Golden Gun: "Da gun! Da gun!" Despite Christopher Lee, this Moore outing about the need to stop a hitman with a solar-powered weapon is one of the most snooze-worthy.

14) License to Kill: James Bond as the lead in the war on drugs. Politically correct? Perhaps. But also a snooze when compared with the majority of Bond's nemesis'. Dalton's reserve and this film's under-achieving storyline did him in permanently and put the series into hibernation for the next six years.

15) Octopussy: Bond is old, dresses as a clown and rides around in a submersible crocodile. What's to like other than Steven Berkoff as a scene-chewing Soviet general?

16) Live and Let Die: Moore's first Bond finds 007 battling a heroin drug lord and the forces of voodoo. One of the least sexy films to be sure, it does nonetheless possess the lovely Jane Seymour and one of the best theme songs ever written.

17) A View to a Kill: Roger Moore's last film, finally. Bond is saddled with the insipid That 70s Show's Tanya Roberts and the genuinely frightening Grace Jones as the series tries to cash in on the technology boom with Christopher Walken as the baddie.

18) Moonraker: James Bond meets Darth Vader. Campy and unable to take itself seriously, Moonraker, about a madman bent on eradicating Earth's population and repopulating it with a superhuman eden, is out-of-this-world bad.

19) Die Another Day: Brosnan's final incarnation as Bond was also one of the series' worst. A hilariously bad storyline, a castrated villain, special effects where models should have been, and, I'm sorry, the laughably bad Halle Berry as Jinx made this one of my least favorite Bond films.

20) Diamonds Are Forever: The early 70s were hard on Bond. It's hard to be suave and sophisticated in big hair and bellbottoms. Add to that the fact that a large part of this film takes place in Las Vegas, kitsch hell. (I'm against Bond films ever visiting the United States, despite the fact that it admittedly worked in Goldfinger).

Trouble in Middle Earth?

What is going on in Middle Earth?

Last Monday, New Line Cinema, the studio that saved itself from oblivion by producing The Lord of the Rings trilogy, announced it was not interested in having director Peter Jackson return to helm The Hobbit prequel, or a second film built around J.R.R. Tolkien's other Middle Earth compositions.

Jackson acknowledged the slight in writing, citing his lawsuit with the studio to recover funds allegedly still due him for the first films as the reason he was passed over.

A few days later rumors began to circulate that Spider-Man director, Sam Raimi was being tapped to take the center chair.

Immediately, rabidly angry fans began an online blitzkrieg.

Now, today, producer Saul Zaentz is giving his assurances that Jackson will indeed direct the two films sometime later in the decade.

For my part, if Jackson is not in command, the films should NEVER, EVER be attempted.

What is going on in Middle Earth?

Friday, November 24, 2006

Could It Be Finals Already?!

Didn't I just post about midterms and now, here I am, looking down the barrel of my finals already?! Less than a month and my first semester is concluded. But not before 30 pages of a screenplay, and about 40 pages worth of papers for my other classes must be generated.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Robert Altman Has Died

Last night in my Film Form and Film Sense class, we watched the utterly beautiful and evocative, McCabe & Mrs. Miller.

So it is with a heavy bit of tragic and poetic irony that I just read that director Robert Altman has died.

One of the most beloved, respected and distinctive directors in the business, Altman was known for employing huge ensemble casts, encouraged improvisation and overlapping dialogue and often shot scenes in long tracking shots that would bounce from character to character.

Altman was the man behind such wonderful films as M*A*S*H, Nashville, The Player and Gosford Park.

His final film, A Prairie Home Companion, was a musing on death. At the time, I wrote about the film, "One can't help wondering if the 82-year-old Altman, who received an extremely well-deserved Honorary Oscar at last year's Academy Awards and admitted to a shocking heart transplant some years ago, sees the film's undercurrent of impending death in his own life. Then again, so long as the angel of death looks like Virginia Madsen, it must not keep him up too much of the night."

You're in good hands, Robert.

How I Met Your Mother-Season One

I write film and TV reviews at Here are synopsis' and links to those reviews.

How I Met Your Mother is the best show you're not watching.

Don't you think it's time to do something about that deeply troubling character flaw?

How I Met Your Mother is a comedy in reverse. Technically the show takes place in 2030. In the future, Bob Saget narrates to his adolescent children how he came to meet their mother.

Back in the present, Ted (Josh Radner) is an earnest architect with puppy dog charm in search of true romance. Finding "the one" is on his mind because his best friend and roommate Marshall (Jason Segel) has asked his long-time girlfriend and kindergarten teacher Lily (Alison Hannigan) to marry him. Suddenly Ted is a third wheel and very aware of his lack of female companionship. If it weren't for the fact that Ted is interested in a real, meaningful relationship, he'd have more female companionship then he'd know what to do with if he spent more time with over-sexed cad, Barney (Neil Patrick Harris). When Ted falls for the lovely TV reporter Robin (Cobie Smulders), he begins to wonder if he hasn't met the future Mrs. Ted.

Is she? You don't think the show would give that away in the first season, do you?

Follow the tribe as Ted and Barney are arrested as suspected terrorists, Robin allows Barney to bribe her into saying all sorts of naughty things on the air, Marshall and Lily are attacked by an indestructible cockamouse, Ted falls for a woman that he meets at a friend's wedding, Barney's past is revealed to be far more granola than anyone could have imagined, Marshall and Ted duel for their apartment with broad swords, Ted awakens to find a mysterious woman--and a pineapple--in his bed, and Lily and Marshal break up.

Neil Patrick Harris, whom no one could have imagined in a role like this, is the surprise breakout star of the show who obliterates all remnants of his Doogie Howser persona as a delightful scoundrel, womanizer, and perpetual bachelor extraordinaire whom he describes as part David Spade, part David Letterman and part Regis Philbin. That Harris has recently come out of the closest makes his role all the more impressive.

How I Met Your Mother is romantic and charming, blessed with a large heart and a heaping dose of sincerity. The writing is sharp and fast-paced, the perfect blend of brevity and whimsy. It's also ridiculously funny.

To read the full review, click here.

Alias--The Fifth Season

I write film and TV reviews at Here are synopsis' and links to those reviews.

When Alias first hit TV screens, it was mesmerizing. Part thriller, part camp, J.J. Abram’s pet project was an astounding cornucopia of unpredictable plot twists and cliff-hangers, exotic locales, sexy women, heart-pounding action and the sort of spy mythology that both borrowed from and simultaneously reinvented the universe of James Bond. Inexplicable and impossible, Alias nonetheless somehow transcended its built-in shortcomings and rose to the point of nearly flawless plausibility.

Not an easy thing to do in a show like this.

Secret Agent Sydney Bristow’s (Jennifer Garner) tragic need to suppress the very truth in her private life that she was searching for in her public life made for stellar drama. Surrounded by a cast of characters both sympathetically insidious and darkly virtuous, Alias became a massive cult phenomenon.

At least that was the first couple seasons.

There is a piece of established Hollywood urban legend that states that J.J. Abrams creates wonderful shows that do phenomenally well so long as he is at the helm. But as soon as he alters his focus to another project, his shows tank. Felicity anyone? (Thankfully, Lost seems to be bucking that trend.) It certainly proved true with Alias as Abrams became distracted with producing Lost and directing Mission Impossible III.

Things began sliding in Season Three. The floor dropped out in Season Four. And Season Five died trying desperately to crawl back to something approaching its former self. Increasingly silly, more and more implausible, and continually feeling like a retread of its former glory, the show, in many critic's opinions, gleefully began jumping the preverbal shark. Ratings had dropped so low into the early weeks of the fifth season, that ABC not only cancelled the show, they cut the number of episodes from 23 to 17.

Season five opens with the same literal bang that closed the season four cliffhanger: just as Vaughn is about to admit something of vast importance to Sydney, pregnant with his child, their car is struck. Sydney barely escapes what turns out to be an extraction for Vaughn who is assumed to have been a longtime double-agent. As Sloane's daughter continues to waste away in a coma, a cure is offered him by the nefarious group, Prophet Five--a cure that will bring him back into the orbit of his life's obsession, Rambaldi and set in motion a confrontation that will encompass the return of old enemies and the necessity of new allies in a final, apocalyptic showdown that will ultimately claim the lives of both friends and foes alike.

To read the full review, click here.

Superman Returns

I write film and TV reviews at Here are synopsis' and links to those reviews.

There’s an incredible scene in Superman Returns where the Man of Steel has caught a gigantic globe--the Daily Planet, as a matter of fact--which only moments before had been falling from atop a skyscraper to a populated street below. As he lowers it gently to the ground, he takes on the iconic pose of Atlas, the Greek god who was tasked with keeping the world balanced upon his shoulders. In many ways, Superman had a similar task; one many felt he forfeited when he left Earth for five years in search of his obliterated home-world. Things got very bad in his absence.

To use a phrase made famous by Ayn Rand, Atlas shrugged.

But this film didn’t.

Superman Returns, while flawed, does not disgrace the mythology. Far from it. It is a bombastic, rousing, explosive burst of summer fun and fantasy, enriched by its predecessors and rejuvenated by the new blood and slavish religious devotion of director Bryan Singer.

I do not fully understand those who have felt the need to tear this film to pieces. Yes, certain characters, even main characters, fail to fully inspire emotionally. Yes, Kate Bosworth, though a fine actress, is totally miscast here. Yes, Spacey, while having his moments, does not come close to the gleeful wickedness of Gene Hackman. Yes, Luthor’s land-grab plot is, well, ridiculous.

But does anyone seriously believe that this film is worse than, shall we say, Superman III or IV? Worse than the film that would have been made with Nicholas Cage in the tights?

I defy anyone who says they did not get chills when John William’s score opened with the classic credits sequence or Marlon Brando’s voice wafted over the speakers or Superman recycled his line about the safety record of flying.

I am the first to slather the praise on Christopher Reeve. He was and still is the definitive Superman. When Reeve fell from that horse years ago, I was physically sickened. One of my heroes, an unfellable one at that, was felled. But Reeve is gone, and while that is a tragedy, we must judge this film on its own merits.

And it has more than enough merits to go around. There’s no other way to say it--this is a awe-inspiring film.

There are moments of immense and breathtaking beauty. Superman has never been more believable in flight. He moves with a grace and elegance we’ve never seen before. He is majesty in motion. When he is not soaring through the cosmos, he floats in it. There is a scene where, with Lois Lane draped in his arms, he drifts past the massive, aforementioned Daily Planet sphere that is, quite simply, poetry in motion. His home is the sky and when he rests, if he rests, it is hovering high over the globe, basking in the sunlight, listening to the world below him.

The special effects are jaw-dropping. Jumbo jets plummet from the sky, a young Clark Kent discovers his powers, a luxury yacht comes to a titanic end, continents shift and earthquakes threaten to tear Metropolis apart. One very minor effect--Superman lowering a runaway car safely to the ground--is an iconic image taken directly from the early comics.

Although Brandon Routh, who is 26--the same age as Reeves when he first put on the cape--appears young, perhaps just too young for the part, he mimics Reeve’s mannerisms and voice with astonishing panache--particularly as Clark Kent. That a no-name actor would be chosen to helm the biggest movie of last summer is a daring choice on Singer’s part. But it was the right choice. By the end of the film, Routh is Superman. (Sadly, the same cannot be said for Bosworth who is simply too young to inspire the necessary gravitas for her role).

Superman returns, although now he stands for “Truth, Justice...all that stuff” instead of “The American Way”--the result of the necessity for movie marketing overseas we’re told. The plot--about Lex Luthor’s attempt to grow an entirely new continental land mass from the same crystals that produced Superman’s Fortress of Solitude--is silly, I grant you, but, in many ways, operates more like a sub-plot. The dominant emotional thread of this movie is far more Superman’s disappearance and what that means to humanity. And, of course, what it means to Lois Lane who has a young child who may not be the son of her current boyfriend as he’s been told. A grand piano will answer that question nicely.

This is a film primarily about fathers and sons--both how much we inherit from our fathers and our fathers’ desire that we grow to eclipse even them. If past films emphasized Superman’s humanity, this one plays off of his divinity, going so far at one point as to refer to him as a god, and underscores the lonely gulf that must necessarily exist between the god and the people he loves and protects. Most superheroes are humans who have undergone some sort of transformation to make them into the supernatural beings that they are. Superman is unique in that his super powers are part of his very foundational nature; they define him.

Superman is also something else among summer movies: old-fashioned. I’m not just talking about the reuniting of characters first developed over 70 years ago, but of the manner in which the film was made. While very serious things occur, the violence rarely moves out of the realm of a cartoon. In fact, you can count the number of people who die in this film on one hand, and aside from one who passes from natural causes, all of them are bad guys. I don’t say this in some sort of smug, prudish, family-friendly rant, but as an acknowledgment of a film that, at its heart is playful, fun and harkens back to a time of simpler filmmaking--all without losing its very contemporary veneer.

To read the full review, click here.

Miracle on 34th Street

I write film and TV reviews at Here are synopsis' and links to those reviews.

One of the most beloved Christmas classics comes in a new special edition DVD sure to delight fans both new and old and prove once and for all that "Christmas isn't just a day, it's a frame of mind."

When the actor tasked to play Santa in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade is found to be drunk, a whiskered old man (Edmund Gwenn) standing nearby is pressed into service by no nonsense special events director, Doris Walker (Maureen O'Hara). Surprisingly, the old man proves to be a sensation with the public and is hastily recruited to be the department store's official Santa.

It seems a natural fit. After all, the old man calls himself Kris Kringle and claims to be the real Santa Claus. Desperate to fill the position and assured by doctors that Kringle is harmless, Doris allows him to have the job. Still, she keeps an eye on him and is wary about his interaction with her daughter, Susan (Natalie Wood) whom she has raised to reject all aspects of fantasy and make-believe.

But there's something different, something special about this Santa. He seems determined to advance the true spirit of Christmas despite the rampant commercialism in the store all around him.

After a conflict erupts, Kringle finds himself at the Bellevue hospital for the mentally insane where he promptly fails a mental examination. Doris' friend, Fred Gailey (John Payne), agrees to represent him and secure his release. But for that to happen, Kringle must endure a formal hearing in which people's most basic beliefs are put to the test. For Kringle to win and get out would take a miracle.

To read the full review, click here.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Casino Royale

Casino Royale isn't simply the best Bond film in years. It is one of the best Bond films ever.

But before I dive in, allow me to come to the defense of the oft-maligned Timothy Dalton for a moment. They tried this once before, you know. To make the Bond of the movies more like the Bond of Ian Fleming's books--darker, more brooding, more violent, more vulnerable. I think we all remember how well that went over. Despite the fact that The Living Daylights was a fine film, and one of my favorites, it was obliterated by critics and audiences alike for not having the lighter, more parodic aspects that viewers had been trained to expect during Roger Moore's tenure. Fans didn't want their Bond anything other than unflappably superhuman.

And now, the franchise is betting that audience's opinions have changed in their favor. Is it because we live in a post-9/11 world in which darkness now seems to be all around us? You can't blame the need for a more realistic Bond simply on Jason Bourne. There has to be something more. Whatever that something is, people are eating it up. Rotten Tomatoes lists Casino Royale at 96%, making it one of the best reviewed films of the year. At my showing in New York, the audience broke out in enthusiastic applause when the end credits began rolling. Something happened in the near 20 years since Timothy Dalton unsuccessfully tried to conjure an edgier Bond. We weren't ready then. We sure as hell are now, it seems.

It was time. The last Bond film, Die Another Day, was an abomination and a low watermark for how far the films had fallen. Many questioned whether or not Bond should even still be around. The Cold War was over. Did Bond even have a place in this world anymore? This film puts that rumor to bed once and for all.

Casino Royale is like no Bond film you've ever seen. This is a film about evolution. Like the sumptuous 1964 Austin Martin DB5 early on in the film and the 2006 Aston Martin DB5 in the latter half, we are allowed an intimate and often agonizing look into exactly how Bond became Bond. Timeless since his 1962 screen birth, this is James Bond's first mission and is based on Fleming's first Bond novel of the same name, never before made into a film except as a parody with David Niven, Peter Sellers and Woody Allen in 1967. When we first meet Bond in the opening moments, he is not yet a Double-O agent. That will come. But first there will have to be the growing pains.

Director Martin Campbell, who so successfully jump-started the series with Goldeneye and newcomer Pierce Brosnan, was given the same, nearly impossible task here: reinvent James Bond for the 21st Century. Take an ailing franchise on the verge of self-annihilation and retool it to fit the sensibilities of a world enshrouded beneath the specter of terrorism. Take one of the largest icons in cinema history, a movie titan with a proven 40-year-plus track record and make him bleed, make him cry, make him human.

The plot is simple. Bond must stop a banker, Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), who funds terrorists, from winning a casino tournament. The plot is simple. The character arc is not.

This is a Bond who does not know how to dispatch his enemies with finesse. His first kill is clumsy, messy, and in no way assured. He will, of course, get better at it. But first he must ride the learning curve. Initially he treats M (Judi Dench) with nothing but contempt; by the end, she is more loving mother than boss. When he first meets Versper Lynd (Eva Green), she subjects him to a psychological interrogation that peels back his armor and makes us realize that beneath the debonair demeanor, the heart of an all-too human man still beats. When he first puts on a tuxedo and admires himself in the mirror, he appears to realize for the first time what we already know--he was born to wear it. When he gets in a fight, he has to wash his own blood from his body and the cuts don't heal by the next scene. When he tells Vesper that he loves her, we know we've heard him say those words (or, more accurately, will hear him say those words) only once before--to the woman who, short-lived though it was, was to become his wife. When he acknowledges that his line of work swallows men's souls, it is the sort of thing to which Bond has never before admitted. When he first utters the famous line, "Bond, James Bond" they are the last lines of dialogue in the film and occur simultaneously with the first time we hear the James Bond theme. He was not worthy of it when the film began. When it ends, we know the character has found his skin.

There is no scope-shot opening, at least not in the traditional sense (what there is made me cry outloud in delight). The traditional psychedelic opening title sequence is magnificent--and there is not one woman in it, half-naked or otherwise. Almost invisible are the quips and one-liners. When Bond orders a vodka Martini, he has to be asked if he wants it shaken or stirred. "Do I look like I give a damn," he replies.

Don't think this film is only about what is left out. It injects plenty too. Casino Royale easily has some of the most audacious and jaw-dropping stunt work and action set-peices the series has ever seen. Remember Ursula Andress' iconic walk up the beach? It's repeated here, only this time the focalization is far less chauvinistic--this time it's all about the female gaze. There is a torture scene that, in the words of one critic, makes a mockery of the film's PG-13 rating. Intense? Yes. But the scene in and of itself is indicative of the entire film's restructuring. This is not a torture scene about lasers and Bond's famous, sophisticated resolve under pressure. This is pure, blunt trauma. It is, in a word, harrowing.

Composer David Arnold scores the film as if he is channeling John Barry, who provided most of the music for the pre-Brosnan films. However, while the Brosnan films relied heavily on electronic scores, Casino Royale's score is lush and orchestral and unmistakably a throwback to the earlier films.

I was wrong about Daniel Craig. Dead wrong. Initially skeptical and even a bit hostile to the choice, he is the absolute perfect person to bring Bond, kicking and screaming, into modernity. Handsome, but with a rugged menace, Craig is nearly everything the implacable Pierce Brosnan was not. And that's exactly the point.

I wonder, having opened Pandora's Box, can they ever close it again? Will we never again see Bond smooth and slightly tongue in cheek, or is the darker, grittier, more vulnerable Bond here to stay? Perfect for this film, will it prove as successful for the franchise overall? That remains to be seen. But God knows I'll be watching from my front-row seat, both shaken and stirred.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Stranger Than Fiction

In 1921, Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello premiered his most famous play, "Six Characters in Search of an Author." In it, the audience watches what appears to be the dress rehearsal for a play only to be interrupted by the arrival of six characters who insist on being given life and the opportunity to tell their story.

When the characters are rebuffed as madmen, they reply that life is full of absurdities that do not need to appear plausible since they are already true. "[T]o create credible situations, in order that they may appear true" is acting, they retort, and therefore, the true madness.

There is more than a little bit of Pirandello in Marc Forster's new film, Stranger Than Fiction.

Harold Crick (SNL alum Will Ferrell in a Jim Carrey-esque, quasi-serious role) is the sort of man no one ever notices. He lives alone. He works alone. He takes lunch alone. And, of course, he sleeps alone. An IRS agent who actually enjoys his job and spends his free time counting everything around him, including his precise number of toothbrush strokes each and very morning, Harold is someone in desperate need of what we might gently call, "a life."

But "a life" is exactly what Harold is in jeopardy of losing when he begins hearing a voice that seems to narrate, in the omniscient third-person, his every move. At first simply exasperating, it becomes a matter of life and death to discover just who and what the voice is, after it offhandedly pronounces one afternoon that Harold Crick is soon to die. While therapists dismiss his claims as schizophrenia, Harold finds support in English Professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) who sets about trying to find an explanation to Harold's mysterious narrator in the realm of literature. (The resulting scenes are an English major's playground of delight.)

Meanwhile, a funny thing begins to happen. The more Harold muses on his imminent death, the more he begins to crawl out of his well-ordered and straight-laced shell and truly discover what it means to be alive. This includes finding love for the first time with sassy, precocious baker, Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), whom he was in the middle of auditing for tax fraud. Suddenly Harold has something to live for.

And in the midst of it all, weary, chain-smoking author Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson) is only pages away from completing not only her first novel in a decade but what may very well be her greatest masterpiece. That is, if she can figure out a way to kill her protagonist, Harold Crick, who, as we've already established, does not, in fact, care to die.

Marc Forster is one of Hollywood's more deliciously unpredictable directors. He's been on the radar screen ever since his difficult Monster's Ball won Halle Berry an Academy Award as the lover of racist prison guard. His next film, the whimsical Johnny Depp vehicle, Finding Neverland, about J.M. Barrie of "Peter Pan" fame, was nominated for Best Picture. After a critical hiccup with the physiological thriller, Stay, Forster here returns in fine form with a film that injects far more substance and far more heart than the comedic trailers, as usual, reveal.

Stranger Than Fiction is not a fluff film. Far from it. Literate and engaging, it may parade around in nonsensical clothes, but just scratch the surface and a vast reservoir of post-modern existentialism is revealed.

How much of our lives to do we actually control and how much is already decided for us? Is control an illusion we've fooled ourselves into believing we all possess? In a sort of cinematic Calvinism, the film asks whether we are the masters of our own destinies or whether an omniscient and unmovable fate guides our path. More important still, are we able to bend the ear of fate and does it have our best interests at heart?

With a strong eye for details (seen nowhere better than in the film's multiple graphic sequences that spatially overlay Harold's obsessive calculations atop the images) -- both visual and physiological -- Forster has crafted more of a fable than a film, an unhurried, whimsical, uncommonly intelligent tale about romance, the self-made man, and what it truly means to be human.

More than that, it confronts the responsibilities of art. When author Eiffel discovers the truth of her situation -- that to finish her novel would mean the death of a flesh and blood man -- she is faced with the choice of finally writing an acclaimed masterpiece or saving the life of a hum-drum everyman barely anyone would miss anyway.

Her decision, dear readers, I leave for you to discover. If the end of the film is a sort of compromise, don't blame the filmmaker, blame the characters. After all, they are the ones in control.

P.S.: Am I the only one who thinks the Sonic guys are hilarious? Apparently not. Forster casts both as Crick's fellow IRS agents. Yes, validation is mine!

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

"The History Boys" New York Press Conference

The following is an article I wrote for cinemattraction. I recently attended a press conference for the film and had a chance to sit down with the director and several of the stars.

Despite the fact that film history has shown that adaptations from the stage to the screen generally prove problematic at best and shark-infested waters at worst, director Nicholas Hytner has made a career of taking plays and transforming them into beguiling cinema. It is not, however, something that comes naturally to him.

"The most difficult thing for me in adapting a play for the screen," said Hytner at a recent press conference in New York, "is that I am simply not in my comfort zone behind the camera."

Perhaps not, but it's an inhibition only he can see. His first film, The Madness of King George, by British playwright Alan Bennett, launched his film career and was nominated for four Academy Awards and won one. He returned to the stage for his second film, Arthur Miller's The Crucible which was nominated for three Oscars. For his third stage-to-screen adaptation, Hytner has re-teamed with Alan Bennett whom he calls a "national institution in England" to bring Bennett's play, The History Boys to life.

The History Boys is Hytner's first major film in eight years. In 2003 he was appointed the director of London's National Theater, instituting several seasons of controversial, politically-charged, and critically-lauded productions. On Broadway last year, Hytner directed "The History Boys" to seven Tony award nominations, bringing home a record six, including "Best Play," "Best Director," "Best Actress," and "Best Actor."

In the finest cinematic tradition of such inspirational classroom dramas as The Dead Poet's Society and The Emperor's Club, The History Boys is the story of a rabble of working class kids from an industrial town in Great Britain who find their lives changed because of the influence of two teachers with radically differing viewpoints on education. Suffused with rapid-fire dialogue, mischievous wit, and vintage 80's music, The History Boys dares to take on politics, the educational system, teenage angst and sexual ethics in 1980s England and, by extension, across the pond as well.

At no time in film history was a transition more ready-made. As he did on The Madness of King George, Hytner took with him the cast that so inspired critical and public acclaim on Broadway. Every one of the main ten-member cast came on board for the film version of The History Boys.

"It's very, very rare that the whole cast of a play goes on to do the film, unheard of even," said Francis de la Tour, who plays teacher Mrs. Lintott. "We all arrived very confident because we'd all been playing these parts for over a year. We knew exactly who we were."

The ultimate rehearsal proved necessary as the cast and crew had only six weeks to shoot the entire film on a shoestring budget. Hytner said he and Bennett wanted to make the film because the story deserved a larger audience than the play afforded them. Furthermore, film allowed Hytner to tell the story with a far greater intimacy.

"The theatre is in permanent wide shot with a fixed point of view. It's nearly impossible to manipulate where you want an audience to look. But the great experiment with this film was to put a camera right in there among the actors, moving with them, following their speed of thought and getting to know them very, very well. That's what we wanted to do. That and capture these twelve actors doing this material forever."

For their parts, the actors relished the opportunity to continue playing their parts.

"We won't ever again have the chance to rehearse for a year like we did with this," said Samuel Barnett, who plays Posner, a role that garnered him a Tony nomination. "We'll never get the richness of the relationships and the reality, the chemistry of what existed between us because we had a year together on stage before we did the film."

"We were so relaxed on the set," echoed Dominic Cooper, who plays fellow student, Dakin, "so confident with the material that we could manipulate it, change it, experiment with it. I don't think we'll ever again experience this. It was absolutely fantastic."

With characters as rich, multi-faceted and nuanced as Bennett's, it's understandable that they would want to bottle the magic for as long as possible.

"It's been the single most demanding and satisfying role I've probably ever played," said Richard Griffiths, who portrays inspirational teacher, Hector.

The History Boys examines how one generation passes history and wisdom to the next. Unlike his fellow teacher, Irwin, Hector is interested more in learning for learning's sake than in Irwin's slick, aggressive strategies that may very well get the boys into Oxford or Cambridge but will in no way prepare them for life. As the men vie for the boys' hearts and minds, the boys gain valuable insight into themselves.

"Today's school kids have completely lost touch with history. And nobody seems to care," Griffiths lamented. "But actually your whole life depends on that stuff sometimes and you should know it. But unfortunately the educational system we have today is more interested in getting the boys out of the way and getting the numbers crunched. That really saddens me."

Cooper agrees. "I think they (the director and producer) were extraordinarily shocked at how little we (the actors) actually knew. None of us boys went to university--we went to drama school! There was a moment when one of us -- I'm not saying who -- actually said 'I knew there was a WWII but I was never sure if there'd been a WWI.' That was our general knowledge of history before we began. We didn't know nearly as much as the boys we play knew and it took us weeks, sitting down with Alan and Nick, to go through all the references."

"We are made to make decisions on our educations and our futures far too early," bemoaned Barnett. "I can't believe that kids are told you must know what you're doing in the future, right now. (You're made to) feel so inferior and lost if you haven't got it all planned out. That's why the film is good. It questions that. It questions everything that we assume education is there for."

Unlike Hytner's previous, sprawling films, The History Boys is by far his most lean and self-contained picture.

"By and large, the film stays in the closed world that the play stays in. In The Madness of King George, the king's world was England, but the world of these characters is the schoolroom. Which is why a huge amount of the film stays inside the school, within that closed world. That was a very deliberate decision. It doesn't cry out for more. It's a film about going inside of a person, getting behind their eyes and beneath their skin."

This microscopic interiority allowed Hytner and his cast to focus on the relationship between Hector and the boys and the ways in which he passionately spurred them into adulthood. Lost and lonely himself, Hector's pours both his knowledge and his love into his pupils, ultimately to controversial and unfortunate ends. While Griffiths certainly did not identify with or champion every aspect of the character he played, he well understood the aimlessness of modern youth and the grounding that an education can produce.

"Nobody can see beyond the edge of 30," he said. "They think, 'by 30 we'll all be dead anyway so what the hell, this is all there is, there's no horizon.' People like Hector give you some idea of where the horizon is, and it's brighter than you think it is and it is so much higher and if you can just dream it, you can go anywhere."

Ultimately the boys lose the one person who had the ability to allow them to see beyond their circumstances, their own contradictions, and their insecurities.

"When (Hector) dies, there is not simply sadness for the loss, but also the loss of what the children could have learned and what future children could have learned," said la Tour. "Will they ever know that kind of teacher again? Are we allowed to dream? We used to ask kids what they wanted to be when they grew up. Nowadays, kids say, 'what's available?' They don't even speak in the language of dreams."

The magic of superior teachers is that their lessons never end and their wisdom is never forgotten. Their words and examples follow us into adulthood and continue to influence our actions long after they are gone.

Hytner is not blasé about The History Boys critical reception (it's thus far been mixed with those critics who disliked it complaining that the film never rises above its staged and theatrical roots), though his perspective is far more holistic.

"What is your definition of success? If it's how much money you take in, than this film will be a miserable failure. But if your yardstick of success is, 'do we as a group feel good about what I've done...' I've been around long enough to have had commercial successes that I'm not all that thrilled with. And yet I've also done things that were neither critically nor commercially successful, but I know they were great. So I'm pretty sanguine about success. If you attached all your feelings of self worth into how much money your film makes or if the critics react or whether it wins prizes, you'll go mad."

Sounds like the sort of wisdom only the finest of teachers could impart.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Another "You Know You're In Film School When" Moment

...When you enter a restroom on the Cinema Studies floor only to find, instead of the usual perverted haiku, quotes from iconic Italian directors scrawled on the stall walls.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The Prestige

Now that I've finally finished my midterms and handed in my final paper last night, it's time to catch up on my blogging, like this mini-review for The Prestige which I saw going on two weeks ago now.

There is a moment in the film, following a puzzling trick when, after it is reluctantly explained, a character says something to the effect of, "Once you figure the trick out it ceases to be interesting anymore."


The Prestige tells the story of two dueling magicians who are constantly trying to outdo each other and steal each other's latest tricks. When Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) invents a trick that astonishes the world, bitter rival Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) makes it his life's crusade to figure out how he does it.

Don't worry, I won't give anything away here.

I am not sure I disliked The Prestige because it is a poor film or because I figured it all out about half way through. Perhaps it's not the The Prestige's fault. So many people told me that I had to be hyper-vigilant when watching the film that I treated the viewing like a forensic investigation, drawing clues out of the most absurd of impressions until I worked out the truth. Even then, I thought that surely another twist was right around the corner and would start me guessing all over again. When that didn't occur and the absurdity of my conclusions proved true, I did not congratulate myself on my skills of deduction--I simply gave up on liking the film altogether.

In a movie about people who make their livings on misdirection, The Prestige utterly forgets to employ its own.

Occam's razor states that all things being equal, the simplest solution tends to be the best one. But with The Prestige, the simplest solution is not the best one because all things are certainly not equal. The Prestige doesn't even try to resolve itself elegantly. The entire film is one gigantic "deus ex machina," a latin phrase used to describe an unexpected, artificial, or improbable device introduced suddenly to resolve a situation or untangle a muddled plot.

The answer will be staring you in the face the whole time but your brain will refuse to even acknowledge the possibility because your brain will assume the filmmakers had a bit more creative grace than to essentially turn their film into an episode of Star Trek. But they don't.

What you're left with is a tiny dog and an old man yelling, "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!"

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Move Over Roger Ebert...

...there's a new kid in town.

(Click on the image and check out #24. It's a screen capture from IMDb of my review for "Babel" at cinemattraction.)

Taking It To The Max

It's been pointed out to me that every so often I post about something that doesn't have anything remotely to do with film.

While that might be true, if you read the summery of this blog at the top of the page, you'll see that it includes the bit, "my experiences as an NYU film school grad student." And while certain experiences do indeed have nothing to do with film, they most certainly are the sort of experiences you can have no where else than in New York and only because of living in New York in the first place. The sorts of experiences where you end up at Star Trek auctions at Christies or, as in the case an hour or so ago, having a Vegan lunch with Peter Max.

Yes, that Peter Max.

Max's art work, which he dubbed "up art" or "Cosmic '60s art" defined the transcendental psychedelic movement, captured the imagination of the entire generation, and influenced much of the advertising design in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Max's artistic impact on the '60s has often been compared to the musical impact of the Beatles, with whom he was friends and with whom he collaborated on "Yellow Submarine."

My wife and I were invited to attend when a friend (and member of the board of my wife's employer) called to say he couldn't make it to a lunch engagement and would she be able to attend in his place? Somehow we managed to say yes.

The lunch was at Max's midtown studio. It was occurring in honor of Anousheh Ansari, the world's first female private space explorer who spent 8 days aboard the International Space Station this September. Part of only a handful of people invited to attend, Max unveiled a massive painting in Ansari's honor.

She was full of stories and impressions. He was warm and engaging. The best part of the day was when the official business was concluded, everyone was milling about, and we had the opporutnity to explore. This was not a space dedicated for shows, although it certainly was used for that and Max's artwork decorated every square inch of the place. This was a space used for creation and bore the mess, disorganization and cluter of artistic elbow greese. Here were canvases piled against the wall dozens deep. Here were tables with half-started projects. Here were the paint splattered floors that spoke with every misplaced drop to the santuary of Max's muse.

Not a bad way to spend a lunch hour, really...