June 20, 2012

There are few things sadder than the unmistakable chill of a craze gone cold. The first two Superman movies captured the imagination of the movie-going public and made a star out of the likable leading man, Christopher Reeve. The excitement was already cooling when Superman III appeared, awkwardly tailored to incorporate Richard Pryor.

Reeve has long since hung up his cape, but those industrious producers of the series, the Salkind family, insist on going to the well at least one more time. Yes, it’s Supergirl, the Man of Steel’s feminine counterpart—also a longtime DC Comics character—but this time out, the thrill is gone. And, apparently, not too many people care.

The Salkinds went back to the formula that made the original Superman such a delight: an unknown player as the hero, a big-star villain, a largely comic tone, and the fate of the world hanging in the balance.

Some of these elements actually work. Helen Slater, making her film debut in the title role, is quite adorable. She shares Reeve’s ability to communicate goodness without making it seem yucky. But she doesn’t always hold the screen too well against her fellow actors—one of whom is Faye Dunaway, the villain who has a hunger for “total world domination,” as she demurely puts it.

She gets her chance. In the undersea community of Argo, Kara (Slater) asks the great Zaltar (Peter O’Toole) what a certain funny round ball is all about. Zaltar explains that the glowing orb is the power source for the whole society (at least, I think that’s what he says—the sound went out at this point when I saw the movie). Kara accidentally lets the ball slip through the Saran Wrap covering of the planet. She goes to the Earth’s surface to retrieve it.

This little doohickey happens to land in Dunaway’s lunch. She’s a witch, picnicking in the vicinity. Sensing (correctly) that it may instill her with ultimate power, she grabs the thing and heads back to her lair, in an old amusement park, and starts doing nasty things to people.

Meanwhile, Kara enrolls in a local girls’ school, claiming to be the cousin of Clark Kent. As luck would have it, Dunaway is often on the scene, and the two lock horns when the witch flexes her magical muscles by trying to make the campus hunk (Hart Bochner) fall in love with her. Instead, he loves Supergirl, and Dunaway starts twitching those magnificent eyebrows and flaring those unforgettable nostrils.

I wish this had been more fun, but the fact is, Supergirl is without style or wit. The early scenes are rushed—there’s none of the lovely myth-making of Superman—and the action is just plain silly. Superman was funny, but when the chips were down, you (admit it) cared about what was going to happen next. That never happens here.

Director Jeannot Szwarc, of Jaws 2 fame, used to be a pretty decent television director—he made many episodes of “Night Gallery” and “Columbo”—and he still is a decent television director. The good news is, he probably won’t be allowed near another Super… project (if there is ever another one). The bad news is he’s already filmed Santa Claus, another legend cinematized by the Salkinds.

The big S and the red cape may be retired for good with this one. On opening night of Supergirl, the thundering music and traditional stormy credit-roll were greeted by a half-empty theater. Nobody seemed excited in the way they did when the Superman movies opened. Regardless of what you think of Supergirl, that’s a little sad.

First published in the Herald, November 24, 1984

Obviously Reeve would later climb back into the role, but the proposed Supergirl franchise was not to be. Szwarc had his big-screen shot, then returned to television, where he is still crankin’ ’em out. He did only one “Columbo,” according to (the one with Vera Miles), but many a “Night Gallery” and other series fare.

Santa Claus

December 24, 2010

For one thing, the title is Santa Claus, not Santa Claus—The Movie, as the advertisements would have it. That’s a good sign, and this film bio of the jolly fat man in the red suit is a bit better than some of the sour advance publicity had suggested.

Unfortunately, it’s still nothing great. The film, on which a reported $50 million was lavished, comes to us from the Salkinds, the millionaire film producers who created the Superman series.

The structure here is similar to that of Superman: We’re shown how the hero’s legend was born, and then how the hero acquits himself in a battle against an evil foe.

Santa Claus, as we first see him, is a kindly woodcutter who delivers toys to the children of his village. One night, during a howling storm on Christmas Eve, Santa (veteran character actor David Huddleston) and his wife (and their twin reindeer) are lost in the snow—and, in fact, seem to perish in the blizzard.

However, a bunch of little elves come to the rescue the next day. Santa and the Missus are trundled off to a huge magical workshop, where he is instated as the deliverer of the presents. A half-dozen reindeer are added to the team, and they’re fed a meal of juiced-up hay, which allows them to fly at Santa’s command. And, for the final coup de grace, a wizened old geezer (played by Burgess Meredith, so you know he’s the soul of elfin wisdom) pulls his beard and decrees that Santa is now the toy-maker to the world.

Fine. That’s the story of the legend, and the first half-hour of the movie. The rest of the film pits Santa against a mad villain (John Lithgow) whose toy company makes shoddy merchandise.

This plot is more fun than the expository section—not least because Lithgow is chewing up all available scenery. He latches onto one of Santa’s wayward elves (Dudley Moore, looking sheepish throughout) who creates a puce lollipop with pixie dust that allows children to fly. Lithgow gets to cackle and say things such as, “We’ll take the cash and let the elf face the music,” so he’s happy.

There’s also some business about Lithgow’s good-hearted little niece and the tough street waif she befriends, but the less said about that the better.

Santa Claus is handsome and well-mounted, but there’s a void of inspiration that prevents it from attaining the kind of charm that Superman had. Director Jeannot Szwarc (Jaws II, Supergirl) seems to have the soul of a businessman, and there isn’t a moment in the film that touches something magical.

On the other hand, it is, at least, coherent—even when it’s borrowing. David Newman (one of the Superman scriptwriters) has kept more than just the structure of Superman; he even has a scene in which the protagonists giddily fly over nighttime Manhattan, just as Superman and Lois Lane did (Margot Kidder isn’t around to sing a song here, however).

Newman fills the movie with familiar Christmas material (and, by the way, this is a secular Santa—no religious questions about the real meaning of Christmas). Elves dance and sing, happy in their work; Santa ho-ho-hos to his heart’s content; the reindeer eat their magic hay and mug for the camera.

There’s enough of that sort of thing to satisfy younger children, no doubt about it. But if you’re old enough to be taller than Dudley Moore, you’re probably going to be underwhelmed.

First published in the Herald, November 28, 1985

Jeez, I closed with a short joke? Against the great Dudley Moore? Moore took a famously large paycheck to do this movie, and his career was never quite the same after. Jeannot Szwarc was a familiar name in sixties and seventies TV before he dabbled in movies for a while (“Night Gallery” was a fruitful pasture for him), and the guy is still plowing ahead in episodic television, so good for him. (“Soul of a businessman” still seems about right.) Trivia: As I was reading the phrase “a bunch of little elves,” a dim memory clicked, and I realized I’d typed that phrase because it was from a novelty song I would hear every year on a Seattle radio station. I just listened to it again on YouTube (the title is, in fact, “We’re a Bunch of Little Elves,” by the Flying Rashid Brothers), and it’s not a classic but it is the kind of thing that will strike you right if you’re driving around a rainy Christmas Eve and it comes on the radio and you get to say “Oh good, there’s that stupid elf song again.”

The song can be found here.