by Steve Habrat
You can’t call yourself a comic book fan if you haven’t seen Richard Donner’s powerful interpretation of DC Comics hero Superman, the first superhero epic ever projected onto the big screen. This 1978 blockbuster, based on the character created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, was marketed with the tagline “you’ll believe a MAN can fly” and to this day, despite dated special effects, I still do believe a man can fly. Donner’s Superman was the film that laid the foundation for superhero origin stories, one that taught Hollywood how to properly pace the origin tale of a crime fighter in tights, slowly and with a never-ending amount of care poured into each and every frame. Superman was born out of the explosion of fantasy films that came with a gigantic price tag, mainly science fiction films escapism like Star Wars. While I have never been big on Superman and I have never really been an avid collector of his comics, I will give his big screen debut credit as being one of the best big screen interpretations of his character as well as being one of the finest superhero epics ever made. I love the slow building story that arrives at an apocalyptic disaster that only the Man of Steel could prevent and the casting of Christopher Reeve is a stroke of genius as the hero who stands for “truth, justice, and the American way”. I will even go so far to say that any director planning to make a superhero origin story should be required to watch this film before they even think about stepping behind the camera.
Superman begins with the destruction of our hero’s home planet, Krypton, and his father, Kal-El (Played by Marlon Brando), sending him to earth in an asteroid-like spacepod. Three years pass and Superman or Jor-El, as he is called on Krypton, crashes in the rural farming community of Smallville. Shortly after he lands, the kind couple Jonathan and Martha Kent (Played by Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter) discovers the young Jor-El and proceed to raise him as a normal human being even though they are well aware of his astonishing superpowers. At age eighteen, Jor-El or Clark Kent, as he is now called, grapples with his superhuman abilities and his world is shattered when Jonathan collapses and dies from a heart attack. Shortly after his father’s death, Clark finds a mysterious green crystal in the Kent’s barn, a treasure that was aboard the ship that Clark arrived in many years ago. Clark says goodbye to the grief stricken Martha and sets out to discover who he really is and why he is capable of such incredible powers. He travels to the arctic where he uses the green crystal to build the Fortress of Solitude, a temple where he can communicate with a recording from his father. It is here that Clark begins learning about his abilities and responsibilities to the citizens of earth. More time passes and the adult Clark (Played by Christopher Reeve) arrives in the big city of Metropolis, where he gets a job as a reporter at the Daily Planet and he meets the striking Lois Lane (Played by Margot Kidder), who he quickly falls in love with. Clark begins to use his powers to help the people of Metropolis, which earns him the name of Superman by the press. Superman soon grabs the attention of criminal mastermind Lex Luthor (Played by Gene Hackman), who is developing a plot that could wipe California off the face of the earth.
Many may find Donner’s Superman a bit longwinded and slow to get to the action, but he really wants us to become attached to the Man of Steel. It is easy to like the guy, especially when Reeve steps into the character and lets his good-old-boy charm have some fun. As Clark Kent, he is an ungainly oaf who stutters through every word that pours out of his mouth. The employees of the Daily Planet march around him, barely even registering that he is actually in the room half the time. He scurries after Lois, who tries hard to humor him but also forgets about him like the rest of their colleagues. His confidence and warmth really takes hold when he rips open that button-up shirt to reveal that iconic “S” stamped proudly on his chest. He almost single handedly cleans up the streets of Metropolis in one evening and still finds time to rescue a kitty stuck in a tree. It is funny that Donner uses New York City as his Metropolis, a city that was slowly deteriorating from rampant crime during this particular era. He seems to literally be suggesting that this “Metropolis” could use a savior who is willing to clean up the streets and stand up to the grimy violence. That savior is a Christ-like alien from another planet who can see through walls, shoot lasers out of his eyes, deflect bullets, and leap tall buildings in a single bound.
Superman belongs to Reeve but his supporting cast is equally as brilliant as he is. Marlon Brando shows up as Superman’s astute father who is always offering up lessons to his pupil. When Brando steps into the frame, your eyes won’t be able to be torn away. About forty minutes into the film, he gets to deliver an unforgettable speech that compares the Man of Steel to Christ, something that may upset some viewers. Brando booms, “I have sent them you! My only son!” and you can’t help but get goosebumps. When Brando isn’t making waves as Kal-El, Gene Hackman cackles as the Man of Steel’s arch nemesis Lex Luthor, who schemes up a nuclear plot (Cold War willies anyone?) that would leave millions dead. A scene where he hacks into Superman’s head and threatens to kill thousands of people in New York City sends an icy chill through the lighter atmosphere that grips the middle part of the film. Margot Kidder is a throaty looker as the force that is Lois Lane. Moving at one hundred miles per hour, Lois is always in the wrong place at the wrong time but the scenes where she is in need of help never feel strained. A sequence where she dangles from the very top of the Daily Planet will take your breath away but you never fear that Supes won’t be able to catch his damsel in distress.
Superman is loaded with sprawling special effects, destroying everything from the Hoover Dam to the Golden Gate Bridge and everything in between. These scenes of destruction still make us scratch our heads and say, “How’d they do THAT?” The most impressive has to be the wobbling Golden Gate Bridge, where the Man of Steel glides in and saves a bus of school children from tumbling to their death. The early sequences of Superman are appropriately trippy, fitting for their intergalactic landscape that looks like it would have been at home in something like Angry Red Planet or This Island Earth. These wondrous images are complimented by a trumpeting score that could only come from John Williams, who composes one of the greatest scores in the history of motion pictures. There are moments of Superman that are devilishly funny, lovingly winking at all the blue, yellow, and red clad fans that are hanging on every second of the film. My favorite wink has to be a scene where Clark is looking for a place to rip off his business attire to reveal the Superman armor. He jogs up to an exposed phone booth but opts for a revolving door that offers him some privacy for a quick wardrobe change. Yet the sweetest moments of the film are the ones where Superman literally sweeps Lois off her feet, taking her up into the clouds. These scenes show us that the Man of Steel has a mushy center.
Overall, Superman is grand achievement for the superhero genre. It proved that these stories could have intellectual ideas swirling below the special effects as well as breezy stories with tons of “WOW” moments. At two hours and twenty minutes, the film covers an enormous amount of ground, something only Superman is capable of. In the end, the whole picture belongs to Reeve, who can’t be topped as the squeaky clean do-gooder. Surprisingly, he lets a small amount of darkness and rage slip into his soul, especially when someone close to him bites the dust in the final moments. You will be hoping that suppressed rage and darkness will be let loose in later installments. Donner’s Superman is a larger than life explosion of sheer superhero bliss that you will want to revisit again and again. Bring on part two!
Superman is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Throughout my film courses at Wright State, one of my professors (who will remain nameless in this review) argued that Steven Spielberg’s 1975 thriller Jaws was not an important motion picture but rather the bane of their very existence. He rarely had a kind word for the film (or Spielberg himself) and it was just downright perplexing. On the one hand, there could have been bitterness there because Jaws was such a commercial success, the first summer blockbuster marketed on a large scale and he was stuck on the smaller scale art house fare, reluctant to give anything with an explosion in it a chance. On the other hand, he could have just been in love with his own pretention and too stubborn to realize that Jaws had some very important things on its mind, mainly reflecting the Watergate scandal that gripped the nation at the time and exploring class relations among its three main protagonists. My professor liked to argue that Jaws, and the imitation blockbusters that followed, chose not to deal with real world consequences to the violent actions within the films themselves, glossing over the cold hard truth. He is wrong, folks. Jaws DOES deal with some real world grief, fear, and the heaviness in the heart of everyman hero Brody. And if what is going on underneath all the mayhem isn’t clever enough, Spielberg makes a film that is an absolutely flawless example of how to perfectly build suspense and follow through with a delivery that will have the viewer’s heart in their throat. Maybe Jaws isn’t such a piece of garbage after all…
Considering everyone and their mother have seen Jaws at least once, I won’t dive into too much detail about the plot. Jaws opens with a group of free-spirited teens partying on the beach. Two of the drunken teens slip away and decide they are going to go skinny-dipping. The boy passes out while in the process of undressing but the girl makes it into the water, only to find herself getting tugged around by an unseen predator that proceeds to rip her to bits. The next day, police chief Martin Brody (Played by Roy Scheider), who has just moved from New York City to the scenic New England island of Amity, finds the remains of the girl on the beach. The medical examiner concludes a shark killed the girl, prompting Brody to close the beaches down, just when the summer crowds are starting to pour into Amity. Overruled by the mayor, the beaches reopen with the promise that there is nothing to fear in the water. Pretty soon, two more people are dead and Brody quickly brings in Marine biologist Matt Hooper (Played by Richard Dreyfuss) to help find the shark swallowing tourists whole. Brody and Hooper join forces with a blue-collar professional shark hunter Quint (Played by Robert Shaw) and they board his rickety boat the Orca, setting out to find and kill the predator before more people are killed. They soon catch a glimpse of what they are going up against and they quickly realize that they are going to need a bigger boat.
No matter how tough you think you are, Jaws, which is based on Peter Benchley’s novel of the same name, has at least one moment that will send you flying out of your seat. Yes, it is a rollercoaster ride caught on film but Spielberg keeps us on our toes for the entire runtime of the film. He is aided by the iconic score by John Williams, which adds to the stomach-knotting tension found woven through Jaws. I dare you not to jump when you get your first good look at the aquatic beast that rears up to show off its pearly white fangs. You’d be lying if you said your pulse didn’t quicken when Brody, who is well aware a shark killed the girl, sits helplessly on the beach while people pour into the water for a cool-off. Each playful shriek has Brody inching closer to the edge of his beach chair. I guarantee that you mimic him each time you watch the film. All of this suspense is aided by the fact that we don’t see the shark until more than halfway through the film and this glimpse is one of those reveals where if you blink, you’ll miss it. By keeping the monster off screen, our imagination runs wild with, “How big is the shark?” “What does it look like?” “Are our heroes equipped to do battle with this monster?” Between the score, the concealment of the shark, and the slowly rising tension, Spielberg crafts a film that still sends people fleeing from it to this day while the brave ones who remain scream their heads off.
While Jaws may be a big budget studio picture, Spielberg refuses to dumb the entire project down and treat us like blithering idiots. Jaws is eager to address the Watergate scandal, which the country was still trying to wrap their heads around at the time. Tricky Dick’s resignation was still fresh in the mind of most American citizens and the fear that we may not even be able to trust our own leaders is touched upon in Jaws. Throughout the first half of the film, the honest everyman Brody is pitted against Mayor Larry Vaughan (Played by Murray Hamilton), a liar done up in flashy suits who jumps on television to reassure the edgy tourists that there is nothing to fear in the waters of Amity. He breathlessly tells Brody that he can’t close the beaches down because the citizens of the area depend on the money that the tourists bring in. As the body count racks up, the slippery politician is caught up in his fib that everything is okay and out of disgrace, he allows Brody to hire Quint to track down the shark. The film uses Vaughan’s dishonesty to infuse the film with some stinging grief that really sticks with the viewer. The mother of one of the victims approaches Brody and scolds him for opening the beaches when he was aware that there was a shark in the water. This confrontation shakes Brody to his core and his character is never the same again. He seems quieter and a bit dazed as a result, seeking refuge in a bottle of wine.
When Jaws isn’t making us feel Brody’s pain, Spielberg is allowing us to really get up close and personal with the three different protagonists. Middle class Brody wanted to escape the violence of New York and live a peaceful life only to stumble into more violence where he least expected to find it. His reveal is most certainly a reflection of the violence that America was still trying to recover from throughout the 70’s. Quint is a blue-collar WWII veteran who likes to poke fun at Hooper, who has a college degree and happens to be wealthy. The group bickers with one another and they have a hard time working together at first but they are able to put aside their difference over drinks and lengthy explanations about past experiences. Quint and Hooper, who butt heads the most, are able to level with each other by comparing their scars, first physically and then psychologically. Quint’s reveal is the standout, a deeply disturbing account of being stranded in shark infested waters at the tail end of World War II. Then, to celebrate their understanding, they engage in drinking and singing, only to be yanked away from bonding by their aquatic nemesis. This bonding sequence happens to be one of my favorite scenes in the film. I love it when Spielberg cuts to the outside of the boat and up pops our antagonist, a common enemy for the uncommon trio.
Perhaps one of the most influential thrillers next to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (my professor’s favorite film), Jaws hits gold with its equal parts action, adventure, horror, thrills, and comedy, all while giving us three characters we grow to deeply care about. Unlike Spielberg’s later work, Jaws doesn’t have such a happy ending to soothe us. He is bold enough to kill off one of the protagonists, a shock to someone who is only familiar with his projects that came in the wake of Jaws. He also doesn’t shy away from graphic violence, a staple that was immensely popular in the horror films of the 1970’s. To say that Jaws isn’t a classic film worthy of study just because it was the film that “invented” the summer blockbuster and was heavily marketed by the studio is ridiculous. While marketing Psycho, Hitchcock used a gimmick that forbid anyone into the theater once the film had started. This gimmick is okay but the marketing for Jaws was a major crime? Maybe I’m the only one who sees something wrong with that argument. Jaws remains one of the best American movies ever made by a big Hollywood studio, one of the best thrillers of all time, and the quintessential summer blockbuster. An undisputed classic that will make you never want to visit the beach or go into the water again.
Jaws is available on DVD. It hits Blu-ray this August, a must purchase for any fan of cinema.
by Steve Habrat
If you are looking for a review of the 3D converted re-release of George Lucas’s Star Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace, you won’t find it here. I don’t feel the need to shell out thirteen dollars for a film that wasn’t filmed in 3D but rather converted to milk more money out of fans. The re-release and my recent purchase of the Blu-ray set has pushed me to revisit the saga in crystal clear HD and I must say, it does look remarkable, but a pretty picture does not make a great film, folks. Lucas, a master showman when it comes to special effects, lost the magic that his original three films had and instead, his new trilogy consisted of countless CGI backgrounds, aliens of all shapes, sizes, and colors, and relentless rubbery action scenes. What made the original three Star Wars films such a success was that they heavily relied on the tale that was told. The characters didn’t seem to have coached interaction, but rather sincere emotions. With The Phantom Menace, Lucas showed us that he had lost control and had instead focused more on creating and selling toys than creating and selling a timeless tale that would extend across generations. But, I will also admit that I found The Phantom Menace to actually be the best of the new Star Wars films. Believe it or not.
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… The evil Trade Federation led by Nute Gunray has set their sights on the peaceful planet of Naboo, which they aim to invade. When two Jedi Knights, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Played by Ewan McGregor) and Qui-Gon Jin (Played by Liam Neeson) are sent to negotiate the blockade issued by the Trade Federation. Upon their arrival, the evil Darth Sidious (Played by Ian McDiarmid) orders that the droid army kill the Jedi. They nearly escape and find themselves on the planet of Naboo, where they befriend an irritating Gungan creature named Jar Jar Binks (Played by Ahmed Best). Jar Jar Binks takes them to the capital Theed, where they rescue Queen Amidala (Played by Natalie Portman) before the Federation can take her. They narrowly escape (again) and then find themselves on the planet Tatooine, where they befriend a salve boy known as Anakin Skywalker (Played by Jake Lloyd). As their friendship grows with Anakin, the Jedi begin to sense that the Force is strong with the boy and that he should be trained as a Jedi. Soon, they find themselves being tracked by a gruesome horned Sith known Darth Maul (Played by Ray Park), who aims to kill the Jedi. The Jedi must also convince the underwater Gungan city Otoh Gunga to help the people of Naboo and aid them in retaking their planet.
The Phantom Menace does achieve the task of opening a door to another galaxy, one that leaves us asking, ‘what will Lucas think of next?’ It really is incredible taking all the creativity in and waiting for little cameos from classic characters. Yoda shows up, R2D2 is in the mix, and, heck, so is Jabba the Hutt for a brief period. The new characters that are introduced are largely wooden in their performance, which is surprising due to the cast of players Lucas has at his disposal. Liam Neeson does the best job with the clunky script that Lucas provides. He is compassionate, kind, and when need be, totally kick-ass. He is a wise father figure for both Obi-Wan and the probing Anakin. McGregor also plays his character the best he can, resisting the constricting grip of Lucas every chance he gets. He’s the true gung-ho hero who is up for an adventure, which is, after all, why we are visiting this far away galaxy.
Natalie Portman also does a stand out job as Queen Amidala, the monotone and ornate ruler who surges with life once Lucas takes us to Tatoonie. Lucas had the good sense to not make her a complete damsel in distress. When she is handed a laser pistol, she fires back at the frail droid army who are persistent in their attacks. The true annoyance comes in the form of young Anakin. Lucas clearly had absolutely no idea how to make a connection with Lloyd and furthermore, how to guide him in a convincing performance. Every single line he utters seems like Lucas is telling it to him through a megaphone just off camera. The young Lloyd also suffers due to there being basically being nothing for him to actually interact with.
The true reason we watch a Star Wars film is to escape for two hours and loose ourselves in the inspired characters of his space opera. Lucas does provide some seriously cool creatures to bug out at. One of his neatest is Darth Maul, a relatively quiet Sith with black and red tattoos covering his face and a collection of horns atop his head. Lucas always has dreamed up interesting foes for our heroes to confront and Maul nears the top as one of the best. He is mysterious, acrobatic, and murmurs only a few lines of dialogue. I also took a liking to Darth Sidious, the throaty and flaccid evil emperor who would appear in flickering transmissions. But the show belongs to the one-man killing machine Maul, who faces off against Qui-Gon Gin and Obi Wan set to John Williams’ epic score. The battle between the two Jedi and the Sith is without question one of the best lightsaber battles the saga has.
The Phantom Menace does have its fair share of negatives. The film tries to appeal more to a younger audience rather than the diehard fans, which leads to Lucas adding heavy doses of comic relief and little in the way of true sinister moments. There is a scene where one character is cut in half but it is far from graphic. Lucas gives stale one-liners to Anakin, who has zero comedic timing. Once again, I honestly feel that this is a reflection of the dry personality of Lucas. The other dreadful addition is Jar Jar Binks, who is more infuriating than funny. His character relies on slapstick to cut the tension, but what Lucas forgot to add was the tension. His droid army is supposed to strike fear in our hearts but the Jedi cut through them like paper thrown at them by a baby. The droids almost come close to cute, something a villain should never be. You’ll also find yourself cringing at some of the most poorly written dialogue of all time.
The adventure spirit is alive and well in The Phantom Menace, which narrowly saves it from being downright appalling. For those who follow the saga closely, there will be much to complain about but Lucas will certainly do some right by you. That right comes in the form of classic characters, an expansion on the iconic John Williams score, and an incredibly awesome climatic lightsaber duel. But it is the countless fakery that ruined the new trilogy of Star Wars films. There was such a heavy focus on the merchandise that could be pushed onto kids that it becomes maddening. Many film professors, intellectuals, and brainwashed film students criticize Star Wars for lacking depth. We know what to expect when watching one of these films and that is creativity and thrills. I certainly don’t go in expecting to see a political satire. I go in for the eye candy and The Phantom Menace delivers on that. It just a shame Lucas went overboard with the sugary visuals. Overall, the Force was strong here but sadly, it wasn’t strong enough to make something great.
Star Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace is now available on Blu-ray and is currently playing at your local theater in 3D.