Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Does the world really need 14 Superman discs?

In the latest chapter of the ongoing trend of releasing big DVD sets to promote new movies, Warner Bros. will apparently sell a Superman box set to end all box sets, weighing in at a mammoth 14 discs. Overkill? Probably. Most of the hype surrounding this set will focus on the 'Richard Donner Cut' of Superman II, and you can read about what might be in that version in this exhaustive article about the upcoming set. Here's the long and mostly short of it: the main reason Superman: The Movie took nearly two years to complete is that the plan was for Donner to shoot the movie and its sequel simultaneously. Finally, after Donner had shot about 75 percent of the sequel, producers told him to wrap it up and they would finish shooting on the sequel after Superman had raked in the dough.

That all seemed fine and dandy, but Donner ended up parting ways with the franchise after shooting the original Superman, so Richard Lester was brought in to finish up the sequel, and also Superman III. Lester was best known as the director of most of The Beatles' movies and also two different Three Musketeers films (he would direct a third, The Return of the Musketeers, in 1989, starring who else but C. Thomas Howell as Raul). Doesn't this sound like the guy you want at the helm of a major special effects franchise?

Anyway, even though Donner had shot a lot of footage for the sequel, most of it was junked, including all the scenes involving Marlon Brando as Superman's father Jor-El. This new version will hopefully include those scenes, as well as an infamous scene previously only seen in the television cut. I am one of the few people to attempt to watch Superman II on television and still have fond memories of this disturbing scene, here's a synopsis:

After the three baddies escape from the Phantom Zone, you would expect them to terrorize the world, but their first stop is a small town in Texas. After humiliating the local law enforcement, a young boy jumps on a horse and rides away for help. The female baddy, Ursa, grabs a siren off a police car, hurls it some 400 yards and kills the boy, setting up this exchange between Ursa and the boy's mother:

'But he was just a boy!'
'Who will never become a man'


Well back to the lecture at hand, this is a completely needless attempt by Warner to convince the public that the Superman series was actually memorable. Even with Donner's new footage, the sequel will still only be an average movie. If you don't believe me, here's an example of the consistently horrid dialogue:

After the three baddys kill some astronauts on the moon . . . one astronaut said 'It's a girl,' leading to this awesome exchange at mission control:
SCIENTIST1: What's a 'curl'?
SCIENTIST2: Isn't that what the old Canaveral guys used to call a comet with an East-West trajectory?
SCIENTIST1: How should I know? I was back in high school in those days.


Superman III is literally one of the worst movies you will ever see. Not only does it NOT star Gene Hackman, but we finally get to see what happens when Superman faces off against an equally supercomputer designed by Richard Pryor. 'Superman III' is at least entertaining in how bad it is. When Pryor and gang try and kill the Man of Steel with kryptonite laced with tobacco, he is turned into Bad Superman, who wastes no time in getting drunk (leading to an epic scene on him in a bar where he starts breaking things by flicking peanuts, much to the dismay of onlookers) and straightening the Leaning Tower of Pisa. We also get a scene of Pryor skiing down the side of a building (we told you he's CRAZY!).

Superman IV: The Quest for Peace is a minor upgrade, if only because we get Lex Luthor back and a new villain (Nuclear Man -- what else?). Sidney J. Furie was a natural choice for director, I mean he had just overseen Iron Eagle. Among many questionable scenes in this movie is the one where Superman unveils his previously unused 'brick action' power. After Nuclear Man destroys the Great Wall of China, Superman stares intently at the ruins and magically rebuilds it in a few seconds. Did Jor-El tell him about the 'brick action' power during his trip to Earth? ('This is another little thing you can do, if a brick house or church is knocked down and you don't have time to rebuild it on your own . . . ')

So enough about the movies, what exactly are they going to find to fill 14 discs? One rumor is that Warner will include the unimaginable horror that is Supergirl. Okay, but that's still only five movies. Assuming Warner can dig up enough trash extras to warrant two discs for each movie, we're still four short. Another question is how much will this very bad boy cost? A comparable set, the Alien Quadrilogy retails for $80 for only eigh discs. It's possible that the Superman set could get into the $150 range.

Finally, it appears that this mammoth set will be bested by the upcoming Planet of the Apes: Ultimate DVD Collection set. Also coming in at 14 discs, this completely unwanted set will contain all five movies, the entire television series, the entire animated series and a new two-disc set of Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Seven Days of Sam Peckinpah, Part 2

'Am I still gonna get paid?'
Day 4: 'Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia'

This movie is often described as Peckinpah's most personal film, so it comes as no surprise that Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is a grating, unforgettable trip through the deepest depths of desperation and false hope. 'Alfredo Garcia' was the lone 'controversial' film by Peckinpah that had no studio interference, and it was also the director's last great film. After 'Alfredo Garcia' he would essentially become a director-for-hire, taking on projects such as Convoy and The Osterman Weekend before his death in 1984.

So as the last great Peckinpah film, it is so fitting that 'Alfredo Garcia' is also the first starring role for Warren Oates, who made a career out of small, but entertaining roles, primarily in Westerns. Oates was a perfect cast, because his character of Bennie is a person who was always in the background, but who has one chance (however minute) to pull himself out of a lifetime rut. Bennie, an American banished to Mexico, is spending another night as a worthless piano player in a bar where no one bats an eye when a hooker is punched to the floor. But on this fateful night, he hears news that a Mexican general is offering a sizeable bounty for the head of one Alfredo Garcia. Bennie takes interest in this because he knows Garcia is already dead.

To get the bounty, Bennie will have to enlist the help of his hooker girlfriend (who was once involved with Garcia) and journey into the darkest locations of Mexico before digging up a corpse and coming away with its head. It is a risky and unsettling proposition, but also one Bennie knows he can't turn down, because this is his one chance to come out on top. Oates is marvelous playing a character who will reach the pinnacle of hope and experience love for the first time in his life, before jarringly plunging into the lowest possible depth and emerging with nothing save for a craving for his own death.

With 'Alfredo Garcia,' Peckinpah gives us an emotional punch to the gut. The movie turns so unexpectedly from an underdog story into a what-could-possibly-come-next descent into the absolute worst of ourselves. The characters are so perfectly established, that when Bennie wakes up next to Garcia's grave to find out the only thing in the world he cared about more than that awful head was taken away from him, the anger and grief feels almost too real.

Peckinpah again uses his familiar technique of demoralizing male characters by showing their companion taken by another man. But in 'Alfredo Garcia' it is used in the most heartbreaking fashion, when the biker played by Kris Kristofferson essentially says he's going to rape Bennie's girlfriend, our hero tries to intervene only to be told to go away because she's 'been here before.' This leads to Bennie killing both bikers, as he begins to realize the violence he is capable of and what he is willing to do to reach his goal.

By the end, the prize is in sight for Bennie, but he has lost everything else and knows it does not matter a bit. When he looks into the eyes of the person who started this backbreaking fall for him, Bennie realizes he has fallen so far that the only way out is through the barrel of a gun, which is the last visual before the credits rise.

Best scene: Bennie gets a little help from his friends (and their machine gun) when the going gets iffy on the road.
Best line: 'I've been no place I wanna go back to, that's for sure' --Bennie
Best Peckinpah moment: El Jefe's daughter telling Bennie to kill him.

'It feels like ... times have changed'
Day 5: 'Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid'

With Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, Peckinpah was presented for the first time in his career with material that had been done before. Hollywood had produced numerous tales of the former lawless friends who were now at odds with each other, and many of them focused on the infamous Billy the Kid. If Peckinpah was going to make a film on a familiar story, then you know he was going to do it different, and his way. Peckinpah's vision of the old Western tale is told more from the angle of Garrett, and is ultimately light on story but heavy on all the elements that make his movies great.

As the movie opens, we are introduced to Billy and Garrett and quickly learn that they are old friends. Garrett informs Billy that he has short time to get out of town, since Garrett will soon be the area's sheriff. Weeks later, after arresting his friend, Billy escapes from jail and leads Garrett on a long chase through Mexico that takes up the rest of the movie. Where this movie loses most viewers is after Billy escapes from jail, as there is little narrative as Billy eludes his friend. Garrett doesn't seem all that rushed to capture his fugitive and Billy doesn't seem to be trying to hard to escape the law. The plot is weak compared to other Peckinpah greats, but it is still an entertaining show, as it is helped by one of the greatest casts for any Western.

What keeps 'Billy' going is the casting of Kris Kristofferson and James Coburn in the title roles. Peckinpah portrays Billy as an anti-authority free spirit capable of harsh violence, Kristofferson fits this role perfectly, looking the part of a 19th century hippy. Coburn is able to be his hard-ass self in the role of Garrett, who at heart is still every bit the bandit as Billy. Both actors have two of the most memorable voices in cinema, and their rare conversations create some sort of testosterone-twanged harmony. The casting of Bob Dylan is questionable, but he does well with what little material he has and of course contributed the outstanding soundtrack.

Dylan's music is the driving force behind one of the movie's best scenes. As Garrett hunts down some of Billy's comrades with a newly deputized old friend and his wife, the opening chords of 'Knocking on Heaven's Door' begins playing softly. This happens just as Baker, the lawman accompanying Garrett, is shot in the gut and realizes he's about to die. Baker slowly starts walking toward a river when his wife notices and runs after him. Just as his wife sees his wound, Dylan sings the iconic first line of the song, 'Mama take this badge from me . . .' A scene earlier, Baker asked 'Mama' for his badge so they could help Garrett. It's a small, but heartbreaking and just plain perfect scene.

The new DVD of 'Billy' offers two versions, the 'preview version' which is the longer cut, and a new cut of the film from 2005 done by those who worked with Peckinpah and were familiar with what he wanted. The new version is tighter and moves a couple of scenes around as well as other differences (i.e. in the preview version, we never hear Dylan's lyrics in the above scene). That the newer version is able to present a more fluid movie by rearranging scenes illustrates the frustration many have with this movie. It has little structure and we appear to follow the title characters from one isolated scene to another. As the film progresses, its pretension increases, climaxing with an unfulfililng ending that tries to be overly relevant. 'Billy' is an entertaining Western spectacle, but lacks the deeper meaning of Peckinpah's other greats.

Best scene: Billy's jail escape is raw, brutal and wild fun.
Best line: 'Won't some of you people get him up off the ground and into it?' --Garrett
Best Peckinpah moment: Billy convinces his friend during a shootout that since he already has mortal wounds, why not help us out and go out shooting?

'If you have trouble [spelling] "Cable," wait until you get to "Hogue"'
Day 6: 'The Ballad of Cable Hogue'

The Ballad of Cable Hogue is unlike any other Peckinpah movie, which pretty much makes it unlike any other movie, period. This does not mean it is a truly great film, but it is wonderfully quirky and unique, with a typically excellent Peckinpah cast. 'Cable Hogue' is a simple revenge tale sprinkled in with romance and some occasional goofball comedy. Most of this movie has aged very poorly, as you will likely groan when scenes have characters running away in double time, Benny Hill-style.

A soft-hearted drifter double-crossed and left for dead by his 'friends,' Cable is in the desert with no horse, water and presumably -- hope. That's until his unlikely discovery of a spring not too far from the road. With the help of a girl-crazy preacher who comes along the road, Hogue fixes up a glorified roadhouse that serves the occasional passerby. While in town securing the few acres he needs, Hogue takes a fancy to a prostitute named Hildy, but doesn't bother to pay for her services. Before being chased out of town, Hogue convinces a stage company to take a chance on him and give him funds for his roadhouse. Soon, Hogue is a fairly reputable businessman, and it's not too long before Hildy starts to warm up to him again.

What keeps 'Cable Hogue' going is the electric performance from Jason Robards as the title character. In keeping with Peckinpah's usual themes, Hogue is a good guy nearing the end of his life before realizing what he is capable of. While he softens up a bit as he succeeds as a businessman, Hogue knows that someday his former friends will be coming along that road and he has some payback for them.

There is little violence, and the comedy rarely works, so what makes this a good movie? Like all Peckinpah films, the characters are believable and rarely fail to entertain. The interaction between Hogue, Hildy and their preacher friend Josh is where the film is at its best. 'Cable Hogue' starts going downhill at the end, when Peckinpah tries to cram more meaning into the movie than it really needs. His familiar theme of the end of the West comes out at the end, and it seems unneeded. 'Cable Hogue' is still a fun movie, but has less relevance and has aged worse than any of Peckinpah's other Westerns.

Best scene: Hogue scares the wits out of his enemies by baiting them into a hole where they find snakes thrown on them.
Best line: 'Since I cannot rouse Heaven, I intend to raise Hell' -- Josh
Best Peckinpah moment: Hogue sharing a bottle of whiskey with the drivers of the stagecoach, ala 'The Wild Bunch.'

'The day of the 49er is gone'
Day 7: 'Ride the High Country'

I conclude this Peckinpah marathon with his first real movie, which showed Hollywood what he could do even with the most modest of budgets and expectations. Shot in only 26 days and with two of the genres foremost stalwarts, Ride the High Country is a timeless tale of morals, friendship and aging, which would go on to be popular themes in all of Peckinpah's greats.

Longtime friends Steve Judd and Gil Westrum find themselves on opposite ends of the tracks now. Gil is an entertainer, masquerading as a sharp shooter named 'The Oregon Kid,' while Steve was once a U.S. Marshal, but is now trying to prove he can still cut as a lawman even as he grows old. Together, they take on a job of transporting a gold shipment through dangerous territory. Gil brings with him his young protege Heck and they even pick up a young woman who is going their way to be married.

'Ride the High Country' was greenlighted as another simple Western, but Peckinpah made it something much more, and it is still regarded as one of the genre's best. All of Peckinpah's Westerns show the end of the cowboy days, and this is the most literal use of that theme, as stars Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott were both veteran Western actors looking to end their acting days on a high note.

On their way to the gold town, Gil and Steve prove to their young companions that they can more than handle their own on the dangerous trail. And when it is clear that Elsa is in over her head with her marriage, the two take it upon themselves to set things right. Little did Elsa know that by marrying one of the infamous Hammond brothers, she was in essence marrying the whole gang. Essentially raped on her wedding night, Gil and Steve take things into their own hands, even though they don't have to.

Before they get back home, they will take on the Hammond brothers gang and Gil will be forced to make a choice of going forward with his plan (stealing the gold for himself and Heck) or being loyal to his friend. By the end, we are left with one of the most touching death scenes of all time and a glimpse into the early successes of a filmmaker who would use this film as his jumping-off point. The values touched on in 'Ride the High Country' are summed up in the best line of the film, and perhaps any Peckinpah movie:
Heck: My father says there's only right and wrong - good and evil. Nothing in between. It isn't that simple, is it?
Steve: No, it isn't. It should be, but it isn't

Best scene: The raucus gold community celebrates Elsa's wedding the only way they can
Best line: See above
Best Peckinpah moment: In a shootout with the Hammond brothers, Gil and Steve show they haven't missed a beat.

Closing thoughts: The idea for this marathon came from the new Peckinpah box set, and it does not disappoint. All four movies (as well as other Peckinpah DVDs, such as 'Straw Dogs,' 'Alfredo Garcia' and 'Junior Bonner') have excellent commentaries from four men who knew the director best. The new version of 'Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid' actually improves on the original movie and 'The Wild Bunch' is loaded with extras (not that I would know, my second disc is defective and I'll have to send the whole set back to get a replacement disc). What got me excited to write these two posts is that Peckinpah is not only one of my favorite directors but also one of the most interesting persons in all of cinema. He was a tortured soul and was able to make several great movies before his death. Even though a few of the films touched on here ('Major Dundee,' 'The Ballad of Cable Hogue') do not measure up to the others, they are still entertaining and worthy of seeing.