Superman IV: The Quest for Peace

January 14, 2020

supermanivAfter the lukewarm success of Superman III, the Superman series seemed to be dead; Christopher Reeve, who had made such a heroic Superman (and such a charmingly inept Clark Kent) declared he’d have no more of it. He wanted to be taken seriously as an actor, and he went to some pains to prove it in a string of box-office duds such as Monsignor, The  Bostonians, and the recent Street Smart.

Those films having stiffed, Reeve now finds it within reason to take the old role again. But it may be more than career inertia that lured Reeve back into the tights and cape. He’s been given some creative control on Superman IV – he’s credited on the screenplay – and he’s turned the project into a message movie.

This is achieved in much the same way that the latest Star Trek movie became a save-the-whales picture. Superman IV is an anti-nuke movie, although it wraps its message in the familiar characters and situations that have made these films so successful. Prompted by a letter from a schoolboy, our hero decides to eliminate all the nuclear weapons on the Earth. And he does.

However, it turns out that this idea is just one tendril from a real jellyfish of a script. There’s also the dilemma of the Daily Planet being taken over by a Rupert Murdoch-type scandalmonger (Sam Wanamaker); then there’s his daughter (Mariel Hemingway), who takes much romantic interest in Clark Kent; another tentative match between Superman and Lois Lane (Margot Kidder); and, of course, that archvillain Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), who’s up to his old tricks.

Hackman’s scenes serve up much of the film’s fun. His campy villainy remains from the first two Superman films, with the assistance of a dim-witted nephew (Jon Cryer). This time, he’s got a strand of Superman’s superhair, which he clones into a solar-powered anti­-hero called Nuclear Man (Mark Pillow) who does battle with Supe on the moon. In one of the film’s funniest scenes Hackman chides Superman, “You’re so involved with this world peace thing, you don’t have time for social calls,” and advises the Man of Steel to relax; get a hobby, or a pet.

The film is much too rangy and fragmented, but their are flashes of the old wit. Much of the likable, self-effacing tone is here, under Sidney J. Furie’s direction, and the easy comedy that surrounds the Clark Kent character is intact.

But is also feels rushed, and it’s too short at 90 mlnutes to hook us deeply. The movie needs another half-hour to stretch out; I had the feeling that whole scenes had been slashed out at some point in the filmmaking process. Some bridging scenes might have explained the biggest mystery in the film: How exactly does Superman eliminate the nuclear weapons, anyway?

Apparently he grabs them as they’re shot up into space, one by one, although this doesn’t explain how he will account for every warhead. Worse, we then see him gather the missiles into a galaxy-sized fishing net, swing it around, and heave the whole mess into the sun. This cockeyed image throws the movie’s anti-nuke message into the realm of the incredible, where it will probably remain until a real Superman comes along.

First published in the Herald, July 28, 1987

I’m afraid I have forgotten everything about this movie, including the fact that it reunited the old gang and threw Jon Cryer into the mix. But I do remember the feeling of a non-event, especially the almost insulting running time; Cannon Films produced the movie, and along with taking their cut-rate approch during the filming itself, they also ripped a bunch of footage from an original preview version. I’m not sure why I accuse a Superman movie of going into the realm of the incredible, but maybe you know what I mean.

The Bostonians

December 11, 2019

bostoniansFor cinematic adapters, the novels of Henry James are among the toughest nuts to crack. The long­time moviemaking team of Merchant-Ivory (consisting of director James Ivory, screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and producer Ismail Merchant) apparently wants to keep trying.

They made a version of The Europeans, with Lee Remick and Lisa Eichhorn, a few years ago. That film disppeared quickly, but they’re at it again, this time with a cast guaranteed to provide a higher profile.

The Bostonians stars Christopher Reeve and Vanessa Redgrave in James’ tale of the struggles of suffragettes in New England in the 1870s. Redgrave is an intense suffrage leader; Reeve is her distant cousin, a lawyer from Mississippi whose views on men and women are only a few hundred years behind the times.

Between them comes Verena (Madeleine Potter), a girl with a mesmerizing stage presence, who makes speeches on the women’s movement. Redgrave takes her in and grooms her to be the figurehead of the suffrage movement. Reeve simply falls in love with her, and pursues her in a gentlemanly fashion during the next couple of years. He offers her a choice: the cause or marriage. Not both.

Without the visual equivalent of James’ elegant, biting prose, that question can get pretty thin when stretched over two hours – and it does. The Bostonians is a stately, stuffy, respectful adaptation; Ivory and company have basically transcribed a number of scenes from the book and filmed them. They certainly haven’t found a fresh, purely cinematic approach. Perhaps its most glaring fault is the absence of Jamesian wit.

If the film as a whole strikes me as a misfire, I still found much of it engrossing. The locations and the actors are watchable enough. Reeve, for the first time outside Superman, is actually pretty good – the Southern accent is unfaltering, and he physically embodies the kind of traditional backward-looking gentleman of the times. Redgrave has less to do, in part because the film has shifted the emphasis toward Reeve’s character.

Wallace Shawn hustles through as a conniving reporter who would like to harness Verena’s gift as a moneymaking commodity; Nancy Marchand does a clever turn as the matriarch of a family whose son is smitten with Verena; and Linda Hunt (the tiny actress who won an Academy Award last year for The Year of Living Dangerously) is a superb choice to play an independent-minded doctor who regards both the suffragettes and Reeve with equal amusement.

One quibble: Newcomer Madeleine Potter seems slightly miscast as Verena. She gives a good performance, but there is something soft about her – an unconvincing element when she is meant to be a riveting and inspirational speaker. Verena’s talent never quite gets across the screen, and Reeve’s enchantment with her is thus a bit puzzling.

First published in the Herald, October 1984

The Merchant Ivory team would make another James adaptation, The Golden Bowl, which was the stiffest of the bunch. This review is fairly humdrum but I think I’m right about the movie; still, I’d give it another look after all these years. This came during the period when Reeve was deliberately steering as far away as possible from Superman, an admirable instinct that helped ground his career after a few years.

The Aviator

March 25, 2011

The Aviator is a traditional sort of Hollywood entertainment that seems less old-fashioned than just plain old. Its setting and characters—a bunch of mail fliers in the late 1920s—are promising, but the story bogs down in a dumb plot hitch and just sputters away.

A withdrawn, soul-deadened pilot (Christopher Reeve) gets a special load on his Nevada-to-Idaho mail run: the spoiled daughter (Rosanna Arquette) of a local businessman (Sam Wanamaker). The plane goes down somewhere in southeastern Washington (doubled here by Yugoslavia!) and Reeve and Arquette have to make do as best they can, fighting the weather, the wolves, and each other.

The idea here, of course, is that Reeve will discover a new humanity through his reluctant friendship with this loud, endearing girl. That theme is unfortunately never given life in this flat adaptation (from Ernest K. Gann’s novel).

It’s too many different kinds of movie: There’s the survival story, the mismatched love story, the tense situation back at the fliers’ headquarters (with Jack Warden presiding), and the character flaws of Reeve’s friend (Scott Wilson). The overall conception is not strong enough to make these things mesh, so we care about nothing but the love story.

Even that is only interesting because of Reeve, who isn’t bad (unlike the Superman movies, he does his own flying here—Reeve really is a licensed pilot), and Arquette. She played Gary Gilmore’s girl in The Executioner’s Song and the lead in John Sayles’ Baby It’s You. She was extraordinary in both.

Here, she’s stuck with a whiny role that’s pretty thankless—and she’s dressed and photographed in an unflattering manner. Still, she has such a natural, spontaneous style, you can’t help but watch her. She’s going to be from heard a lot in the coming years.

We might have expected a little more zing in the outdoor sequences, since The Aviator was directed by George Miller, an Australian who made a lively—if utterly silly—directorial debut with the outdoor action pic, The Man from Snowy River. It’s clear from The Aviator that whatever prowess suggested by Snowy River was purely superficial.

By the way, he’s not to be confused with that other Australian director named George Miller, who so brilliantly visualized The Road Warrior and that knockout episode about the terrified airplane passenger in the Twilight Zone movie. For the sake of those of us who follow these things, couldn’t one of these directors adopt a middle initial?

First published in the Herald, March 13, 1985

Jeez you guys, stop teasing me about Rosanna Arquette—I’m telling you, that’s the way it seemed at the time. I couldn’t have foreseen how quickly her career would stall out, any more than you could have predicted the end of Yugoslavia. This seems to have been the biggest shot for that other George Miller, and it’s a stiff; it helped grind down Reeve’s Superman momentum, too. The books of Ernest K. Gann (The High and the Mighty, for instance) could be found in most houses of my parents’ generation, and I’m sorry to say I have yet to read one. One of his titles—Fate Is the Hunter—always gave me a good chill when I glanced at it as a child.