Thursday, June 29, 2006


Reverent. That's the word I kept thinking while seeing Superman Returns. The reverence Bryan Singer and Co. had toward everything Superman is apparent in every element of this film, and it's that kind of thinking which has helped produced the best comic book movies, and the exact feeling which was missing in the last X-Men movie. Whereas X-Men was a slow-moving parade from one special effects sequence to another who-cares plot point, 'Superman Returns' exudes a charm that it is the best possible incarnation of a worshipped cultural icon.

The best decision Singer made with this movie was placing it somewhere in Richard Donner's Superman universe. As a pseudo sequel to Superman II, Singer didn't need to spend an hour with Supes' origin. This was the right decision not only story telling-wise, but also because it allows the first two entries in the series to be appreciated as they should be, while also enabling fans to further forget the last two Superman movies. I think this was an early stumbling block by fans, as the thinking was 'Superman' didn't need to be remade, as Donner's 1978 will always be a landmark achievement for all comic and blockbuster films.

And like Donner's film, 'Superman Returns' feels like two movies. I've always felt that the first third of 'Superman' is the high-water mark for any superhero movie, which is why some feel disappointed with the movie as a whole, because the rest is almost a letdown. 'Superman Returns' is the reverse of this, with the movie kicking into high gear after the first hour. Where 'Superman Returns' will pale in comparison to the 'Spiderman' franchise to non-comic fans is that first hour, where you'll feel kind of lost if this is the first Superman movie you've seen. But it's impossible not to smile once you see how right Brandon Routhh looks in the suit (which in my opinion, does NOT need to be fire engine red and sky blue, the straight-up colors looked hokey even in '78 and would come off worse on today's screens, I like the new pallette), how much fun Kevin Spacey is obviously having as Lex Luthor (despite what Ebert says, more on that later) and even though flying sequences are old hats nowadays, Singer manages to conceive something effortlessly startling in many scenes. This is most apparent at the end of the much-talked about airline rescue scene, I won't spoil it but when you see the notes Singer ended it on, you'll get a feeling for how much creative energy was really put into this film, I know I did.

I re-watched Superman: The Movie with my nephew the day before seeing the new one, and I recommend doing the same, just to get a handle at how connected the two are. Sure, Gene Hackman's Luthor was fun as hell and Spacey's is more evil than gregarious, but then how would expect Hackman's Luthor to act after spending five humiliating years in prison? I knew Singer was headed in the right direction when I heard he was re-using some of Brando's footage, and it turned out to be a revelation. Brando IS Jor-El, using a new actor would be all wrong, and I think my favorite scene of the new movie is at the end when Superman recites my favorite Jor-El line. But this wasn't from Jor-El talking to him through the crystals, this came right before he left Krypton, as if the father HAS become the son and vice versa. I wasn't expecting it and was just blown away when I heard it.

'Superman Returns' is nearly flawless, but there are still some parts of it that bother me. Chief among them is the decision to have a Superman Jr. in this. I can understand putting this device in a sequel, but now they HAVE to put lil Supes in the sequel, and they didn't really get much mileage out of him in this movie. Do we really want to see a coming-of-age Superman learning his powers in the next movie? I'm sure they will make it work when we see Superman again in 2011 or so, but it just seemed like an odd decision which didn't prove too fruitful. Another is that while Singer weaves the Superman world masterfully, we never really get the feel how happy Earth is to see Superman again after a five year absence. Seeing the miracles he works, don't you think the populace would really miss him, and if he came back, shouldn't there be some sort of global emotion? You see it at the end, but never really get the impression when he first arrives. Also, some minor fan boy quibbles: if this is a sequel, why does the Kryptonite Lex steals from the museum still say 'Abbas Addiba' on it? Lex already stole this piece of Kryptonite in the original and presumably used it, did someone recover it and put it back in a museum? We're never really convinced why Superman would want to return to Krypton, I mean if a planet explodes, it explodes, meaning even if there were some chunks left floating around, there wouldn't be anyone hanging out on it Little Prince style. One last note: there were a few scenes where my wife and I both thought Routhh's unusually perfect features were digitally enhanced. I know it was filmed in digital and we were seeing it at a digial theater, but watch for a few shots where Routhh comes off looking more like a Ken doll than human.

Finally, I have to say how much I disagree with Ebert's two star review. I've been reading Ebert for at least 10 years and don't think I've ever thought he was ever so wrong. The ho-hum action sequences he describes sure don't sound like the ones I watched, same goes for Spacey, who seemed to relish playing someone genuinely devil-ish. I thought Ebert would appreciate the creativity which went into 'Superman Returns,' as well as the story, which was miles ahead of X-Men 3, for which he gave a positive review.

Late review: A Prairie Home Companion
As much as I enjoyed 'Superman Returns,' my favorite movie of the year is still A Prairie Home Companion, which is the rare kind of movie that leaves you with some sort of baptismal feeling exiting the theater. Everything works. Everything. As good as the casting looked on paper, it becomes near perfection when you see Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly in the prototypical Harrelson and Reilly roles. This is especially true for Kevin Klein, who would get an Oscar nom for this if he hadn't played this same role a few times before. It's a movie full of Best Supporting Actor nominations, but if I could pick actor who will actually get this nomination, it's actually Virginia Madsen, who's in the role of her career and literally sparkles throughout. Throw in the wonderful-as-usual Garrison Keillor writing, and you have a movie that you have to be kind of an asshole not to like.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

The That Guys

With the tragic passing of Paul Gleason last week, it is time to recognize the exclusive Hollywood club to which he belonged. Gleason was a That Guy, a term coined by Bill Simmons, but further explained in this post, which also represents the first class in the That Guy Hall of Near-Fame.

A That Guy is a recognizable, nameless actor who usually plays the same character in every film he is in. For example, when I was told that Gleason died I was clueless, until someone said he was the guy from The Breakfast Club. The name of the phrase comes from saying 'Hey, it's That Guy!' when a That Guy appears onscreen. While being a That Guy is usually not a welcome distinction, Jeremy Piven has proven that That Guys can move into leading roles. However, there are other That Guys who have made a nice career out of it, these are the pioneers, the original That Guys. The inaugural class inducted into the That Guy Hall of Near-Fame begins with the genre's foremost figure.

Dick Miller
Destined to play: Take-no-shit, witty old guy; next victim in buffet line for monster/killer
I have written about the wonders of Dick Miller before, both here and here, and it is essential for him to headline this list. Miller has been a That Guy for a whopping 162 movies and he's still going even though he's pushing 80. Miller was lucky enough to befriend directors such as Roger Corman and Joe Dante who began casting him (sometimes with his character having the same name in multiple movies) in all of their projects. You might know him as the gunstore owner in The Terminator or that one guy in Gremlins (with a substantially larger role in the sequel).

Danny Trejo
Destined to play: Thug, sometimes with a heart of gold
There was a run of movies in the late 80s/early 90s where it seemed that SAG passed a new bylaw which required any action movie involved Danny Trejo in some way. Since 1985 he has starred in an unbelievable 126 movies, including a whopping 22 in 2006 or 2007! Trejo has the coveted That Guy statistic of having more roles than lines (unofficial number). He has had a few breakthrough moments: his role in Heat (character name: Trejo!) was memorable, as was his turn in Desperado (1995 was a good year for him).

Al Leong
Destined to play: Thug/goon
While Trejo has had some roles to speak of, I can't even think of a single line of dialogue uttered by an Al Leong character. Never heard of him? Think of the thug with the butcher knife in Big Trouble in Little China or the Asian thug in Die Hard, or basically any Asian character you've seen who sported a fumanchu. While not having as many credits to his name as some on this list (only 53), Leong undoubtedly is the acting president of the Ninja/Gunman division of the Asian Actors Guild.

Woody Strode
Destined to play: Grateful sidekicks
The other posthumas entry in the list, you could argue that Woodrow Wilson Strode's career was more than a That Guy, and that may be true, but he played That Guy so well that he needs to be on here. Lurking in the background of so many great Westerns, Strode was a favorite of John Ford but earned his shining moment as the dynamite arrow-shooting Jake Sharp in the 1966 masterpiece The Professionals.

Paul Gleason
Destined to play: Hard-ass authority types
Known to a generation as the Breakfast Club principal, Gleason made a career out of playing detectives, deans and doctors. So anonymous was Gleason that his IMDB page contains the line 'reportedly owned a restaurant.' (NOTE: There were better pictures of Gleason available, but I had to include this one because of his quote 'I fantasize all the time' on the cover.)