A Few Super Thoughts Before MAN OF STEEL’s Opening Weekend

Icon. Legend. Seller of gourmet hamburgers.

Icon. Legend. Seller of gourmet hamburgers.

Programming note: I figured out how to add footnotes via WordPress. Apologies for stealing Bill Simmons‘ schtick in advance.

With a new Superman film opening this weekend, I wanted to jot down a few thoughts about the previous films and just why I’m excited for a new/old twist on a familiar character.

Before we get to Zack Snyder and Henry Cavill, however, there’s something that needs to be made absolutely clear.

I liked Superman Returns.

(Yeah, I’m that guy.)

The Richard Donner Superman remains my favorite superhero film. Christopher Reeve was Superman to me. I had a Supes bookbag in kindergarten1, there were the Superfriends and a copy of the Superman IV novelization2. When college came around, a chance walk through the campus radio station when John Williams’ score was on the air (this was the cue) flipped a switch and all of those childhood memories came back. The score was reissued in 2000 and duly pre-ordered, while the only thing stopping a DVD purchase in the spring of 2001 was the lack of a player.

So when Bryan Singer promised to return to the Donnerverse in 2006 coming off of X2 3, excitement built up to a fever pitch. Kevin Spacey as Lex! An unknown as Supes! He was gonna use the Williams theme!

Hell, watching the opening sequence while on the clock at Regal Henrietta was a thrill unto itself.4 I saw the film four times in IMAX that summer – the last time after Labor Day, where the poor manager opened up the theater for myself and two people. When the terrific Ultimate Collector’s Edition box set was released in November of ’06, that was bought right away. No crossing fingers for a birthday and holiday surprise for me.

And yet… I haven’t seen Returns all the way through again. The Donner Cut of Superman II? Check. The voluminous extras? You bet. Even, mercifully, Superman IV? Yep. (I drew the line at Superman III. Once was enough there.)

Oh, there’s skipping around, of course. The opening. The plane landing sequence… and that’s about it, really.

Ironically, it feels like the element that I looked forward to the most is the real problem, made obvious by seven years of hindsight. By tying the film directly to a series that petered out in 1987, Singer tried to have his homage and eat it, too. Brandon Routh did a fine job as Superman… but was more or less aping what had gone before. Same thing with Spacey. Once the excitement of the theatrical run passed, all Returns did was make me want to pop in my Donner Cut discs again.

If nothing else, the Snyder/Christopher Nolan/Cavill version of the character is going to be markedly different from Reeve and Routh. That’s not a bad thing, so long as my discs are around in case the film is a disappointment.

Here are a few more reasons I’m looking forward to Man of Steel.

Amy Adams. Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane is the real weak link of the Returns casting. She’s too fresh-faced to be bought as the veteran reporter with a weakness for Smallville residents. So they hired the obvious choice – someone known for being feisty, older than your lead and with clear acting chops. Works for me.

Hans Zimmer’s score. I can take or leave Zimmer’s work, so when he was announced as the composer, there was a fair bit of grumbling. Despite his ambivalence in taking the job, the trailer music has been nothing short of outstanding. John Williams’ place in Superman history is secure, but hopefully Zimmer’s spin is worthy.

The fresh angle. Granted, I spend too much time on the internet reading film message boards as it is, and people are truly fatigued about Nolan’s Batman trilogy. They’d rather have something bright and fun like The Avengers, instead of Christian Bale’s Cookie Monster impression for two hours. At least – on paper, anyway – this is new spin on old material. Two days before release, I’m okay with that.

Speaking for myself, I’m intrigued at how this is going to turn out. Warners is already moving ahead with both a sequel and a Justice League film, so underperforming like Green Lantern did two years ago would sink those plans. They need new franchises badly, and finally developing other DC Comics characters would be a much needed revenue stream. (Plus, a Flash movie in my lifetime would be nice.)

I’m planning on seeing MoS Friday afternoon, and a review will follow this weekend.

See you at the movies, and remember, we’re all on the same team.

Footnotes

1. Mom still has it. Really.
2. I still have it, beaten and torn as only a true pack rat can treat his stuff.
3. Singer wanted to film
Returns and then X3, but Fox turned him down, going with Brett Ratner instead as they wanted to beat Returns to theatres. Wonder if the Fox brass regretted the decision, considering how well a Singer-directed X3 would have been received. (At least $300 million in the US, I figure.)
4. Seriously, I was damn near incoherent with excitement. The only comparison I can make is a
Star Wars fan on opening night of Phantom Menace in May of 1999.

Rochester Roadshows: CLEOPATRA (1963)

The opening day ad for Cleopatra in the Democrat and Chronicle, August 7, 1963.

The opening day ad for Cleopatra in the Democrat and Chronicle, August 7, 1963. (Click to enlarge.)

 

There is no way to discuss Cleopatra without mentioning its production. Without that elephant in the room, there’s a good chance that this wouldn’t have gotten the deluxe treatment from Fox in 2001 and now in a spiffy 50th Anniversary Blu-Ray package. 

The star nearly died, and had to get a tracheotomy that’s visible in some shots. She began an affair with her co-star that overwhelmed the production. The director had to get daily adrenaline shots to stay awake so that he could work on the script at night. A small project that was designed to get its studio some quick money ballooned to a size that still boggles the mind five decades later, and almost closed 20th Century Fox in the process. It became the biggest hit of the year, but didn’t turn a profit until the TV rights were sold three years later.

And that’s just the basics. The entire story was given the documentary treatment in 2001, thanks to Kevin BurnsCleopatra: The Film That Changed Hollywood. While I’d love to delve into the juicy details of the three-year odyssey, you’re better off putting aside two hours of your time and checking it out here.

Shorn of the drama that influenced most contemporary reviews (the New York Daily News’ Judith Crist famously called the film a ‘monumental mouse’), judging the film on its own merits is much easier.

It’s obvious why the idea of a remake has attracted such interest over the last few years. After all, the film is a four-hour vanity project for Elizabeth Taylor. She became the first actress to earn a million dollar salary for the role, which eventually ballooned to $7 million by the time of release. Unfortunately, even though the camera finds her irresistible, she can’t carry the film by herself. Her chemistry with Rex Harrison is wonderful, as their spats are reminiscent of Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle. But when he takes that final step into the Roman Senate, something is lost and doesn’t come back.

Richard Burton’s Mark Antony is introduced as a military leader, but by the time Octavian (Roddy McDowall) and his armies are storming Alexandria at film’s end, he’s a broken man. Perhaps a less-frenzied production would have coaxed out a better performance, but the interactions between Burton and Taylor have the whiff of a bad soap opera. Contemporary audiences were more forgiving, but viewed with modern eyes, it drags the film down.

While director Joseph Mankiewicz wanted two three-hour films, Fox chairman Darryl Zanuck shot the idea down and demanded a cut around four hours, which was what critics and premiere audiences saw. Exhibitors wanted to take advantage of the buzz surrounding the Burton-Taylor relationship, so another hour was removed for more screenings and the film was reissued at 193 minutes. The 248-minute version was rediscovered in the Fox vaults years later, and that is the cut available to the public.

The length does have its advantages. The Acteum sea battle at the end is gripping, especially on the big screen. The running time also allows composer Alex North to go epic with his score from the propulsive nature of his overture to the lovely notes of the exit music.

Other actors are given room to shine. Cesare Danova, Martin Landau and Hume Cronyn bring gravitas to their parts, but McDowall is the clear winner. Cheated out of an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor (the studio screwed up the paperwork), it’s not hard to see why he was considered a shoo-in to win. Like Joaquin Phoenix’s similar role in Gladiator, he pings back and forth between madness and sanity in a bid to reclaim the Roman throne he believes is his. It’s a rare part where going over the top makes complete sense and the film is better for it.

So can I recommend it? If there is a nearby screening in your area, go. No matter its faults, you shouldn’t deprive yourself of the aural and visual splendor onscreen. Only after the exit music ends and the lights come up do its failings become more obvious.

At first glance, Cleopatra’s entry into Rome might look for all the world to 21st century audiences like a WWE wrestler at Wrestlemania. But then the manpower and scope behind the scene become obvious, and the phrase ‘they don’t make them like that anymore’ has never felt more apt.

Cleopatra ran from August 7, 1963 to February 12, 1964 at the Riviera Theatre in Rochester. It was the theatre’s third and final 70mm roadshow engagement of 1963, and the longest run of them all (27 weeks).

Viewed at a one-off screening on May 26 at Cinemark Tinseltown in Rochester.

Next: Cinerama! Submarines! Soundstages! Jim Brown!?

Rochester Roadshows: An Introduction

The opening night crowd at the Riviera Theatre for the April 1962 premiere of West Side Story. (Courtesy of Cinema Treasures.)

The opening night crowd at the Riviera Theatre for the April 1962 premiere of West Side Story. (Courtesy of Cinema Treasures.)

When I decided to create this blog, the aim was to use it as a repository for reviews and whatever else I felt like talking about. (Let’s just forget that the last entry was two years ago, shall we?)

One of the biggest plans was to take my previous 70mm research and turn it into a review series called Rochester Roadshows. I’ve written about the roadshow era of film exhibition before, and that part of the business remains fascinating to me. My generation only knows the Monroe and Riviera as porn houses, if at all. Rochester’s part in the roadshow era is a little piece of local history that remains intriguing and mostly unexplored by the wider media. (For example, did you know that one of the first 70mm camera processes was created here at the University of Rochester?)

However, all of the trivial bits and assorted minutia obscure one sad fact that shames a film nerd like myself: I haven’t seen most of those films. There’s no better way to resolve my shame, keep the writing mind sharp and indulge the inner film nerd in one fell swoop than to do a series of reviews. The only requirement for consideration was that a title had to be given a roadshow engagement in the Greater Rochester area. I’ll start with the obvious large-format titles, but eventually 35mm roadshow runs will find their way here, once I complete that next level of research.

The first film on the list might be the biggest of them all. It’s certainly the most expensive roadshow film of all time, that’s for sure. 1963’s Cleopatra celebrates its 50th anniversary in a matter of weeks, and to celebrate their new Blu-Ray release, Fox saw fit to send shiny new HD prints all over the country. Rochester was lucky enough to have one of these screenings, and once my notes are transcribed, a review will be forthcoming of this Sunday’s show at Cinemark Tinseltown.

To give you an idea of what’s coming, here are some of the titles I hope to write about. These are just the films that were given local large-format roadshow runs from 1957 to 1971. There might be one or more a week, but since deadlines have a way of being ignored… let’s just start with Liz and Dick and go from there.

Around The World In Eighty Days
Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969)
South Pacific
Sleeping Beauty
Oklahoma!
Ben-Hur
Can-Can
The Alamo
Spartacus
Exodus
King Of Kings
West Side Story
El Cid
Mutiny On The Bounty
Lawrence Of Arabia
It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World
My Fair Lady
The Sound Of Music
Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines
The Agony And The Ecstasy
Doctor Zhivago
Khartoum
Grand Prix
The Sand Pebbles
Gone With The Wind
Far From The Madding Crowd
Doctor Dolittle
War and Peace
2001: A Space Odyssey
Oliver!
Sweet Charity
Ice Station Zebra
Paint Your Wagon
Ryan’s Daughter

Holy cow, that’s a lot of titles. Challenge accepted (gulp).

See you at the movies.

Two Guys, A Girl and A Power Ring: A GREEN LANTERN Review

In brightest day, in blackest night, no lousy script shall escape my sight.

After seeing Green Lantern on Wednesday night, I kept thinking of Los Angeles Times critic Kevin Thomas while digging through the early reviews online. Thomas was the lone American critic who dared print a positive review of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate as the film was shaping up to be a financial and critical disaster in 1980.

That’s not to say Lantern has inspired that level of vitriol from the blogosphere. It’s rare for me to walk out of a theatre and wonder if critics saw the same film I did. The inherent problem with GL remains: the character is kind of silly. Maybe people aren’t ready for a completely fantastical character who hangs out with aliens while punching people with giant green fists. I am not most people. And apparently, I can forgive a mediocre script if Ryan Reynolds is the guy using said fists.

If you’ve ever read a GL comic, the story hasn’t changed: Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds) is a test pilot who finds himself chosen to be the newest member of an intergalactic police force known as the Green Lantern Corps. While dealing with that, he has an off-again, on-again romance with the boss’ daughter, Carol (Blake Lively) and the ominous presence of Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard), whose encounter with the alien who gave Hal his power ring puts Earth in danger.

Reynolds has been circling the comic-book film world for years. He was reduced to a one-liner machine in Blade: Trinity, and survived the mess that was Wolverine with his dignity intact. In between, he was attached to an adaptation of The Flash.

Finally allowed to headline, Reynolds imbues Hal with a good sense of humor. It never devolves into mugging for the camera and he makes the clunky dialogue work. Having not watched Gossip Girl, Lively was a complete blank slate for me. She certainly looks, erm, lively, but the scriptwriters give her nothing to work with. Sarsgaard’s resume is littered with films that are the antithesis of this one, but he takes the opportunity given to make Hammond a campy, fun character.

Geoffrey Rush, Michael Clarke Duncan and Mark Strong are arguably better known than the leads, but they’re given the enviable roles of Exposition Characters to get everyone who doesn’t have their Corps and Coast City straight. Strong, in particular, should be praying for a huge opening weekend as his character would be key in any future adventures. (Judging by the reaction he got at my screening, people want to see more of him.)

While the script is half-baked, all the other gee-whiz moments are not. The look of the Lantern suit, derided when released to the public last year, works fine on screen. The design of Oa and the Corps is straight out of the comic. The Guardians are similar in design to the Kryptonians from the beginning of Richard Donner’s Superman… except for the giant heads. The universe building is fantastic, I just wish the script was better.

Overall, it’s a satisfying start to what hopefully will be the first post-Nolan Batman DC franchise. The writers were tasked with writing a sequel and a Flash film last year, so WB’s on the ball there. Whether or not people respond is another matter.

Attended a sneak preview on Wednesday, June 15th at Regal Greece Ridge 12. Thanks again for the tickets, Nate.

Sports Saturday: June 18, 2011

"Hey, wasn't my fault."

The uproar over LeBron James’ postgame comments after last Sunday’s Game 6 of the NBA Finals made me think of Patrick Kane, alcoholism and man-whoring, of all things.

To refresh the memory, LeBron took a shot at those who would revel in the Heat’s failure.

“All the people that was rooting on me to fail, at the end of the day they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today,” James said. “They have the same personal problems they had today.”

Taken at a base level, he’s right, but as Jay Smooth eloquently says in his video blog: no shit, genius, we know that. Just don’t tell it to our faces when we watch you play or buy your shoes.

Patrick Kane is a similar case, although not on the same level. Instead of wanting to be a ‘global icon’, seems all Patty wants to do is score on the ice and off.

People always complain about athletes acting like spoiled brats, but to be fair to LeBron and Patty, when you’ve been coddled since your early teens, the development period from Teenage Douche to Fully-Adjusted Adult is going to be warped. Instead of being tossed into the emotional meat-grinder that is college, where you can screw up and learn from your mistakes without an omnipresent media detailing every one, you’re tossed into the NBA or NHL at 18 and being told to be The Savior.

The media coverage doesn’t help, of course, but at the end of the day, it’s about whatever kind of support group you have. For most athletes, it’s a family member, concerned coach or friend. In some cases, it even can be your boss. In short, you need people to smack you around and tell you to act like a man when you screw up.

I can’t find any info on Pat Kane’s support group, but hopefully somebody pulled him aside after that Deadspin gallery of drunkenness showed up last year and read him the riot act. Someone should also let him know that it’s typically a bad thing to have your own Deadspin category.

LeBron’s different, of course. Speaking as a guy with a base of long-time friends, their ability to be honest with me would be compromised if I was paying them. Are you gonna tell your boss that announcing his decision to leave Cleveland for Miami on national TV is a bad idea? Then again, it sounds like LeBron was only following the orders of, well, everyone else.

Still, it doesn’t sound like he’s going to get it any time soon. Much like that championship he kinda, sorta wants.

Sports Saturday: June 11, 2011

All of Cleveland is hoping for this reaction on Sunday.

My hope for the blog is to average a post per day, and to stick to those subjects that I know well and don’t come off like an idiot when discussing them. (In short, I’m not a political or religious animal, so don’t come here expecting lucid opinions on either subject. I may discuss them from time to time, but those instances will be rare.)

In that vein, here’s my first attempt at a Sports Saturday post. Think of it as a more intelligent take of the Peter King model of journalism. That said, if the guys at Kissing Suzy Kolber want to rip on a guy blathering on his new blog, you have my permission.

Anyway…

I’m not sure if people understand or care just how bleak the NBA labor situation is, and that’s a shame, because the NBA Finals have been entertaining. Will America gripe and whine when October rolls around and there’s no basketball or football?

On that note, will Cleveland care if the Browns aren’t playing? How long would the glow from the Heat choking away the Finals last? Global icons aren’t supposed to disappear in fourth quarters, you know. (Then again, they aren’t supposed to do this, either. You party after you win, not before.)

The Stanley Cup Finals have been equally fun. There’s nothing quite like two teams that can’t stand each other and have blunt objects available to help take out their aggression. Whatever happens, this has been a treat to watch. Too bad the American ratings won’t reflect that, as always.

On behalf of 95 percent of Rochester Americans fans, please make the purchase happen, Mr. Pegula. While I understand the concerns of those that would prefer the team to be locally-owned, the track record of Pegula and Sabres president Ted Black has given me no reason to think that they can’t get a good product on the ice. Plus, Pegula’s wife is from Fairport and her father was reportedly one of the people pushing for a deal, so buying the team and leaving it to rot isn’t likely.

You know you’ve crossed the Rubicon as a soccer fan when you’re listening to Belarus and Iceland in the European Under-21 Championships via ESPN3. I’m sure a few of my Goldsmiths classmates (looking at you, Elmes and Whitwell) could tell me who some of the players are, but I am a blank slate.

On this continent, I’m looking forward to the US and Panama playing in the CONCACAF Gold Cup tonight. (Think of the World Cup, except smaller and only with teams from the Americas and Caribbean. The Americans are not only good in this competition, they’re co-favorites with Mexico. Strange, I know.)

Thanks for reading. There should be a few reviews up this week.

What’s In A Name?

So why Barg’s Bijou?

Well, I’m a bit of a movie buff, and I like alliterative titles, so there you are.

In detail, I have a passion for vintage films and love researching theatre history. (I’ve spent most of the spring researching 70mm engagements in Rochester, for example.) This blog will be a repository of reviews, thoughts and whatever comes to mind. (I’ve got a series of reviews percolating in my mind titled Rochester Roadshows, highlighting those films that were shown here in 70mm.)

Now, I’m also a sports nut. So inevitably, there’ll be thoughts and rants on local sports, the Bills and Sabres and all sorts of minutiae.

The header is of a long-gone Rochester theatre circa 1930 (Thanks, Google Image Search!). The Loews Rochester was one of the city’s pre-eminent theatres before Xerox bought the property in 1964 and tore it down. The Cinema Treasures link includes a look at where it is in relation to downtown now (about a block from the Liberty Pole and the Rundel Library).

The picture comes from the Flickr account of one Brad Smith, who has a repository of vintage marquees from all over the country. It’s a good way to kill a couple of hours, check it out.