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Richard Donner’s ‘Superman,’ the Definitive Comic Book Superhero Origin Story

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High school pals and cartoonists Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster sold the character of Superman to Detective Comics, Inc. (later DC Comics) in 1938. Ever since the history of the widely considered national cultural icon continues to be awe-inspiring. Superman premiered in Action Comics #1 of the same year, a time when Americans were in desperate need a hero; and ever since Superman has appeared in a variety of animated and live action movies and television series. The Man of Steel has also appeared in various radio serials, newspaper strips, and even video games throughout the years, and with the success of his adventures, Superman helped to shape the superhero genre and establish its command within American pop culture. An animated cartoon of Superman appeared in 1941, and in 1942, a Superman novel was published. A Columbia movie serial about Superman was first released in 1948, and then the Man of Steel made his bow on television in The Adventures of Superman, starring George Reeves, which ran from 1953 until 1957. And in 1966 the caped crusader appeared on Broadway in a musical and returned to television for Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, which ran from 1993 until 1997. And of course, there was the highly successful Smallville series, which lasted ten incredible seasons. For decades, Superman has reigned as America’s foremost folk hero, yet, of all these modifications and adaptations, the one that stands out the most, is Richard Donner’s Superman The Movie. Along with its 1980 sequel, no live-action film has done a better job in capturing the essence of the character (and yes, that includes Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns and Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel).

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“It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superman!”

Making good use of the boastful tag line “You’ll Believe a Man Can Fly”, Richard Donner’s big-budget blockbuster Superman: The Movie, is an immensely entertaining rendering of the origin of the famous comic book character. Superman is the first great comic book movie, skillfully blending humour and gravitas, while balancing special effects with the romance between Superman (Christopher Reeves) and Lois Lane (Margot Kidder). Superman is directed with a trustworthy sense of authenticity by Richard Donner and boasts an epigrammatic script by Mario Puzo, as well as a superb score by legendary composer John Williams (Star Wars, Indiana Jones). The film, which handles the source material’s fantastical conceits with straight-faced assurance, became the template for the modern superhero movie, and a defining high point of Hollywood’s turbulent relationship with the comic book industry. And no matter how advanced our special effects have become, Superman has aged incredibly well over the years. This loving, nostalgic tribute is still the greatest, if not one of the greatest superhero movies ever made.

Developed by Godfather scribe Mario Puzo, Superman takes its time establishing the fundamental constants of the Superman mythos without ever losing focus of the character’s ‘humanity’. The film opens with a spectacular outer-space, effects-heavy, presentation of life on Krypton, where Marlon Brando and Susannah York play Superman’s parents. The Christ allegory version is subtle here: Jor-El (Brando) sends his only son to the planet Earth to help us, humans, realize our “capacity for good.” The prologue is beautifully photographed and the opening scenes of Krypton showcase a lot of imagination, great model building, and first-rate sound design. Brando who tops the credits despite only 15 minutes of screen time, commands the screen. After all, this is Brando, and his name alone was worth his fee, an exorbitant $4 million for work that amounted to line reading from cue cards and ludicrous demands on set.

Superman was never designed as a one-off movie but instead, intended to be filmed back-to-back with Superman II. In the opening act, Jor-El banishes three criminals – General Zod (Terence Stamp), Ursa (Sarah Douglas) and Non (Jack O’Halloran), for their crimes against Krypton. Before exiled in the Phantom Zone for 40 years, Zod swears revenge on Jor-El and his heirs. It’s a brilliant set-up, a formula Marvel would later follow with Phase One of their Avengers series. While Zod appears as a minor antagonist, he returns in Superman II as the main villain. Thus, Superman II, which was released two years later, acts as a continuation of events. All that said; unlike say, Iron Man 2, Superman is enjoyable in its own right.

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Kal-El’s escape as an infant from the doomed planet Krypton leads him to a crash-landing on Earth, and the story of the young Clark Kent (Jeff East), and his upbringing by a Kansas farm couple begins. Clark grows up as a clean-cut, all-American type – but really a child with special abilities – and raised incognito, in order to prepare him for greatness. Following the death of his adopted father (Glenn Ford), Clark sets out on a journey to the arctic circle. There, he discovers the fortress of solitude made out of crystal and ice, but more importantly, Clark discovers his heritage. After 13 long years learning about the histories and cultures of his home planet, he emerges, wearing the blue spandex suit, the red cape, and stylized red-and-yellow symbol of hope on his chest. It would seem a huge mistake to have the lead actor debut an hour in, but Superman’s origin story, moving from Krypton to Kansas, gives the last son of Krypton an intense emotional authenticity, and packs the screen with numerous clever nods to various aspects of Superman lore.

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It’s a good 50 minutes before Christopher Reeve – now forever connected to the Man of Steel – actually makes an appearance; as does Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor, and Margot Kidder as Lois Lane. When the film was released, the casting choices were a hot debate. A worldwide hunt was conducted to find the right man but none of the big name stars seemed to fit the bill. The decision to go with an unknown actor in the title role was greeted with skepticism, but producers were confident that Brando’s casting was all they needed to give the movie credibility. As both the son of Krypton and his clumsy alter ego, Reeve is superb. He’s so good, that it is nearly impossible to think of anyone else as Superman. Reeve, a former soap-opera star, effortlessly transitions between Superman’s cool confidence and the bumbling demeanour of his alter ego, Clark Kent. The differences aren’t subtle, but they are incredibly effective. The actor dominates the title role and makes it his own with his chiseled, tall, dark, handsome features and his likable, shy, boyish looks. Throughout his career, Reeve has never been noted as an actor of exceptional range but his performance is clearly one of the highlights here. It isn’t until he appears on screen that the film really takes off (pun fully intended). In fact, Reeve does such a good job representing both halves of this split personality, you could easily fool someone into believing it is a different actor.

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The third and final act follows the Man of Steel to Metropolis where he lands a job as a reporter working for the Daily Planet. There, he, of course, falls in love with Lois Lane and crosses paths with the villainous Lex Luthor, who launches a diabolical plan to destroy all of California. As the feisty Lois Lane, Margot Kidder is excellent, and the chemistry that sparkles between Reeve and Kidder harkens back to beloved classic screwball comedies starring Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. The scenes between Lois and Superman are especially memorable: “You got me,” she says to Superman after he saves her from falling from the rooftop of the Daily Planet; “Who’s got you?” Meanwhile, the scenes in the Daily Planet are unmistakably similar to the classic newspaper comedies such as The Front Page, with speedy dialogue and a cast who can keep up with several conversations happening all at once. Especially memorable is Jackie Cooper as Perry White. One of the disappointments of Superman, however, is the lack of a truly menacing villain. Assisted by the bumbling Otis (Ned Beatty), and sexy Eve Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine), Lex Luthor is written more for comedy than for menace. Luthor is charming and amusing, but he never seems particularly dangerous. Not to negate Hackman’s performance, because he is amusing to watch, but the villains in Superman The Movie are more akin to those found in Tim Burton’s Batman films, than anything produced in the new millennium. It was a different time, but for the time, it works.

Each portion of the film is distinct in tone and style. The Krypton sequence is cold, dark and very much in keeping with other sci-fi flicks of the decade. Smallville is the polar opposite; quiet, warm and anchored by a simple, but heartwarming family drama. And while the third act remains the most entertaining portion of the film, it is also the most problematic. Just how much one can forgive the silliness of the third act may determine one’s overall enjoyment of the film. Luthor’s lair is the basement of Grand Central Station, two hundred feet below ground; meanwhile, Lois Lane, living off the salary of a newspaper reporter, lives in a penthouse garden suite. The inclusion of several decidedly campy elements, particularly Lois Lane’s cringe worthy, inner monologue, during her nighttime flight with Superman, is just terrible. The film’s climax, which ignores reality in ways that only a comic book movie can,  is perhaps the ultimate cheat. Lois is killed in the course of events, but Superman circles the globe at such incredible speed that its rotation is reversed, bringing Lois back to life.

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Superman may have been an expensive production, but the money is all right there on the screen. As with any superhero blockbuster, the accent here is on the special effects. Production designer John Barry created dazzling sets, and the cinematography by the late Geoffrey Unsworth (to whom the film is dedicated) is simply incredible. Richard Donner and his large crew of technical experts did the impossible by overcoming every challenge in presenting the man who leaps tall buildings in a single bound, runs faster than a speeding bullet, and yes, flies. The film’s revolutionary effects proved an unqualified success. There’s never a moment in the film when chronicling Superman’s stunning physical feats that look awkward or out of place. Over the years, new generations of comic book lovers might consider the poor quality of the flying effects troubling, but in a way, better effects would have clashed with the overall tone of the movie. Superman wasn’t easy to bring to the big screen, and so, you have to admire just how incredibly well they pulled it off. Finally, the most memorable aspect of the film outside of Christopher Reeve’s portrayal is John William’s bombastic score. Williams was single-handedly responsible for a number of unforgettable movie anthems (Jaws, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark), but Superman’s theme might just be the very best.

Note:

There are various cuts of the movie that exist. The official, theatrical version has a running time of 2:23. In the early 1980s, ABC chose to air Superman as a special two-night, four-hour event, with approximately 40 minutes of additional footage. While the original theatrical cut is superior, the extended TV cut is a curiosity worth seeking out.

Some people take my heart, others take my shoes, and some take me home. I write, I blog, I podcast, I edit, and I design websites. Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Goomba Stomp and the NXpress Nintendo Podcast. Former Editor-In-Chief of Sound On Sight, and host of several podcasts including the Game of Thrones and Walking Dead podcasts, as well as the Sound On Sight and Sordid Cinema shows. There is nothing I like more than basketball, travelling, and animals. You can find me online writing about anime, TV, movies, games and so much more.

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‘The Kingmaker’ is a Probing Look at the Wife of a Despot

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Imelda Marcos in The Kingmaker

The Queen of Versailles, released back in 2012, was one of the best documentaries of the decade. Directed by Lauren Greenfield, it followed Jackie Siegel, the trophy wife of David Siegel, founder of the timeshare company Westgate Resorts. The film depicted the family’s construction of what was to be the largest residential home in the United States, which quickly went awry once the 2008 financial crisis hit their business hard. The documentary showed that Greenfield has a unique gift for understanding the lives and pathologies of the super-wealthy. Seven years later, Greenfield is back with The Kingmaker, another documentary portrait of a rich lady — one who, like Jackie Siegel, also had a cartoonishly evil husband and a weakness for both opulent residences and rare exotic animals.

The Kingmaker is a portrait of Imelda Marcos, the First Lady of the Philippines from the 1960s to the ’80s. Imelda is known in the popular imagination as the supportive wife of that country’s dictator Ferdinand Marcos, for frequently meeting with world leaders, and for her extensive collection of thousands of pairs of shoes. This one is set on the other side of the world, but is just as instructive, not to mention entertaining.

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Greenfield’s film catches up with the now 90-year-old Imelda, and depicts her life today as she luxuriates around her various estates, reminisces about late husband, tells stories about meeting with leaders from Reagan to Mao to Saddam, and pushes the political career of her son, known as Bongbong, who ran for vice president of the Philippines in 2016. 

For the first half hour or so, The Kingmaker looks like an attempt to humanize and even rehabilitate Imelda’s image. She opens up about her mother’s death and her husband’s serial infidelities; he claimed he was constantly sending her around the world because he feared a coup, but really it was so he could conduct extramarital affairs.

We start to think this is, if not a puff piece, the equivalent of one of Errol Morris’ docs, where he gives a controversial political figure a chance to have their say while also challenging them. 

But eventually things turn, and The Kingmaker lays out that the Marcos family had in fact engaged in massive human rights improprieties, from torturing political dissidents to rigging elections, to a scheme that entailed razing an entire residential area in order to build a zoo of exotic animals which were imported from Africa via bribes. Perhaps it was a clue early on when Imelda revealed how well she got along with the likes of Richard Nixon, Moammar Khadafy, Mao Tse-Tung, and Saddam Hussein. 

The Marcos family also plundered billions from their own people, which paid for real estate all over the world, priceless art, as well as that famous shoe collection (The Kingmaker shows, among other things, that the Philippines could really use an Emoluments Clause.) What Imelda has to say now (she only ever refers to her husband as “Marcos”) makes it clear that she was not only complicit in the dictator’s crimes, but continues to defend and profit from them to this day. 

And from what we see of the Marcos’ son, Bongbong, he’s a uniquely untalented and uninspiring politician who has inherited all of his father’s corruption, but none of his charisma. The Kingmaker also ties in with the modern-day politics of the country, as its current president, Rodrigo Dutarte, is shown as the true heir to the Marcos tradition, depicted as a Trump to Bongbong’s Jeb Bush.

The Kingmaker also recalls Joshua Oppenheimer’s great 2013 documentary The Act of Killing in the way it demonstrates how national myths are established and carried through the generations. We see schoolchildren reciting why the imposition of martial law was actually a moment of national glory. 

Greenfield’s last film, last year’s Generation Wealth, was a big step down, lacking any focus and for some reason concentrating a great deal on people from the porn industry. But The Kingmaker is a return to form for the filmmaker, as it shows she’s honest enough to speak ill of her own subject. 

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‘Rojo’ Takes Carefully Composed Aim at Argentina’s Murky Past

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Getting off to a creepy and crackling start, Benjamín Nasihtat’s Rojo can’t quite live up to its opening promise while admirably trying to navigate a muddied maze of vague suspicion around a small town in Argentina during the 1970s before the coup. Still, though the story bumps into a few dead ends before finally emerging into some light at the finish, exquisite compositions — punctuated by occasional bursts that mimic the time period’s cinematic style — and a quietly simmering performance from star Darío Grandinetti manage to keep things engaging enough throughout this low-key thriller.

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After a mysterious opening shot in which an abandoned house in a pleasant neighborhood is calmly looted by various locals, Rojo directs our attention to a cozy, upscale restaurant where respectable lawyer Claudio sits alone, waiting for his wife, courteously acknowledged by other similarly well-off patrons. He draws the ire of another customer, who abrasively chides Claudio for occupying a table when he is not ready to order, thus depriving those who are. Pretending to take the higher road, Claudio gives up his seat, but can’t resist also giving this rude young man a lecture of his own — one that despite its refined vocabulary, smacks of hostile superiority. From there, an altercation ensues that will not only haunt Claudio for the rest of the film, but also stand for a certain societal rot that took over a country.

The sequence is chilling in its callousness, the way in which a person is removed from a restaurant — and a community — with nary a blink of an eye; soon, everyone is back to chattering away, enjoying their meals as if a mere pest had entered and was quickly shooed away. Beneath their civilized faces, however, their are subtle signs of deep unease. Rojo expertly creates a tension here that it will then go on to very slowly dilute, as more and more tangents are given prominence in an attempt to reinforce already clear themes without shedding new light on them.

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The paranoia and guilt lurking beneath nearly every interaction in Rojo serves to bring attention to the various disappearances that take place and are alluded to throughout the story. That fear of being “disappeared” without a trace is a clear reference to the “los desaparecidos” — political dissidents from the era who either fled the country or were kidnapped and murdered in the wake of a military coup that wanted to silence opposition. The premise that one can suddenly say the wrong thing and summarily be erased from society while everyone looks the other way is an inherently scary one, and that pervading atmosphere goes a long way toward making Rojo highly watchable.

However, once the general idea is firmly and skillfully established, Rojo seems to have little place else to go with it. A subplot involving selling the house from the prologue is mildly interesting in how it portrays the opportunistic behavior that capitalized on atrocity, but the process eventually fizzles out. American rodeo cowboys pay a visit, alluding to U.S. involvement during the coup, but not much else. A trip to the beach perhaps shows a bit of the pressure that gets to those who have had to turn a blind eye for so long, but little else is garnered outside a stylish depiction of a solar eclipse that washes the screen symbolic red. A teenage romance seems like it’s reaching for something important to say about dominance and jealousy, but can’t come up with more than another disappearance — and of a character who might as well be a nobody regardless, for the few minutes they are on screen.

A missing doctor, a magician’s act, a church confrontation; the power of the vanishings is undermined somewhat by their frequency. But maybe that’s the point — that we all can be desensitized to injustice.

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Still, whether or not one finds meaning, it’s hard to take one’s eyes off such gorgeously composed images as Nasihtat has crafted here. Though its plot often seems to lack focus, Rojo still emits a feeling of pinpoint exactitude through pictures. Nearly every frame is a joy to examine, creating a palpable sense that angles and staging have been meticulously prepared to convey important information key to unlocking the script’s mysteries. Restrained use of zooms and freeze frames also help inject some period style into the proceedings, and can be effectively startling. Holding it all together though is the repressed performance of Darío Grandinetti, who masterfully finds the quiet fear and hypocrisy in a certain kind of ‘upright’ citizen. As the various pressures grow (including from a big-city TV investigator played by Alfredo Castro), will he be able to hold it together?

The payoff is a bit anti-climactic, but Rojo has already been trending that way since the beginning. Nevertheless, it does conclude on a more explicit note, and there is a great visual pleasure to be had from simply watching this story unfold in such sharp, capable filmmaking hands.

‘Rojo’ is now available on digital formats from 1844 Entertainment.

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‘Queen of Hearts’ is a Frank and Difficult Look at Sexual Desire

Trine Dyrholm is typically brilliant in Danish film ‘Queen of Hearts’ — playing an older woman embarking on an affair with her stepson.

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Queen of Hearts

Queen of Hearts starts with a rather banal scene. Anne (Trine Dyrholm) walks through the woods with her dog. Her children are just outside her large, glass-heavy house. She goes inside, where her husband, Peter (Magnus Krepper), says police have called and he has to go. She looks outside at some barren trees, dramatic strings play, and the title credits come on; it’s a seemingly innocuous moment curdled into something far more ominous. 

This opening salvo with something moody and dark hiding within the banality and reliability of a simple family scene (later revealed to be in the future) sums up the Official Danish Best International Film submission Queen of Hearts as a whole. This is a film of bad decisions, loneliness, and creaky moral boundaries, interrogating the mores of modern womanhood against the backdrop of supposed domestic perfection. 

Our protagonist, Anne, is a lawyer who works with children who have been abused. She knows how to talk to young victims of rape and neglect, balancing a firm sense of what’s right with the necessary language to give these children hope. But she has difficulties switching from work to home, unable to give her twin daughters the affection they deserve. One way for anyone to switch off and focus on life outside of work, of course, is to engage in some form of intimacy; yet, her hypocritical, workaholic doctor husband has little time to give her any attention in the bedroom. 

When Peter’s teenage son, Gustav (Gustav Lindh), turns up to stay for the summer, Anne is immediately attracted to his moodiness and sexual swagger. Their slow seduction scenes seem to all come from different movies: porno (he suddenly comes out of the shower in the towel), summer indie drama (a scene in a lake with splashing water and an ecstatic soundtrack), and eventually horror (a writhing, overly staged sex scene in the dark that is extremely shocking in its frankness). 

These shifts in tone reflect the film’s queasy study in shifting sympathies, making Queen of Hearts a modern morality play baked in typically Scandinavian seriousness. Is Anne simply engaging in a harmless affair, rediscovering her long-dormant sexuality? Or is the age difference simply too far? With echoes of both The Hunt (2012) and the women-focused sex-dramas of Lars von Trier, it is sure to provoke a mixture of praise for its brazen female sexual gaze, and eventually disgust for where this gaze finally takes us. 

Queen of Hearts

Most of us assume that we are good people, even as we are engaging in less than savoury activities. It may look bad to people on the outside, but we have our reasons. The ever-reliable Trine Dyrholm turns in another mesmerising performance here, balancing her own lack of sexual self-confidence against her outwardly authoritative presence as a lawyer. Even if we cannot agree with what she does, Dyrholm successfully conveys her character’s complexity, making her sympathetic throughout. But just as we can never judge ourselves objectively, we can never know the ultimate effect our actions may have on others, especially in a dynamic such as this, leading to some bitter results. 

Queen of Hearts asks the viewer to never make assumptions, to think outside of clichés, and to really dig deep into the true heart of the matter. Director May el-Toukhy knows she has strong actors and a strong screenplay here, employing minimal tricks to just let them get on and really chew into the material. While unlikely to make it into the final Oscar shortlist, Queen of Hearts deserves a lot of credit for its utter brazenness and steadfast commitment to its difficult premise.

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