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DVD Reviews for 12/1: Look, Up On The DVD Shelf!

by Peter Sobczynski

In which your faithful critic deals with more "Superman" DVDs than one shake a stick at, yet still makes time to make snarky comments about Barbra Streisand and Mandy Patankin.

Arguably the DVD box-set behemoth of the holiday season, “Superman Ultimate Collector’s Edition” offers up a 14-disc collection that encompasses the four films made between 1978-1987 starring Christopher Reeve, this year’s controversial franchise reboot “Superman Returns,” alternate versions of two of the movies, a low-budget effort from 1951 that was the first feature-length attempt to bring the Man of Steel to the screen, all 17 of the “Superman” cartoons produced by the Fleischer Studios in the 1940's, an assortment of vintage television specials, newly-created documentaries and commentary tracks and a vast array of odd and ends including one of the most exceptionally bizarre stabs at a spin-off ever attempted. In fact, there is so much stuff here that the sheer bulk of the set and its contents may prove to be too daunting for all but the most dedicated of fans. However, if you are one of those hardy fans–the kind not at all daunted by the fact that the purchase of this set indicates at least a tacit approval for one of the shabbiest sequels in contemporary film history–this collection is a dream come true.

Released in 1978 to an avalanche of pre-release hype that would be replicated a decade later by Warners to launch “Batman,” “Superman–The Movie” remains one of the high-water marks of the live-action superhero genre that would set the template for similar films that remains firmly in place to this date. Although largely mocked at the time, the early scenes on Krypton featuring Marlon Brando now have a solemn sort of power to them, mostly because Brando tackles the material with utter seriousness instead of turning it into camp. There is a bit of a lull during the depiction of Clark Kent’s childhood years on the farm but once the scene shifts to Metropolis and Christopher Reeve makes his debut as the Man of Steel, it turns into a fast, funny and thrilling mixture of comedy (Gene Hackman turns in one of his funniest performances as Lex Luthor), romance (whether he is playing Clark or Superman, Reeve strikes genuine sparks with Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane) and spectacular special effects (which still look pretty good today, despite the occasional visible wire). On the four discs covering this title alone, we get both the original 1978 theatrical version (with commentary by producers Pierre Spengler and Ilya Salkind) and a 2001 version slightly expanded and recut by director Richard Donner (who offers a entertaining and revealing commentary along with uncredited co-writer Tom Mankiewicz), a three-part documentary covering the production of the film (including some amusing screen tests for the roles of Superman and Lois that include some familiar faces and prove that Reeve and Kidder were by far the best choices) and the 1978 television special “The Making of Superman: The Movie.” If that weren’t enough, the discs also include “Superman Vs. The Mole Men,” a 1951 movie spin-off of the beloved George Reeves television series, and nine of the “Superman” cartoons produced in the 1940's that were hailed at the time for their impressive visual effects.

If you had asked me when it came out in 1981, I might have told you that “Superman II” was actually superior to the original. For starters, while you had to wait about an hour for Superman himself to make his first appearance in that film, he is swooping around and saving the world from the get-go. Even better is the fact that for once, Superman is finally up against a foe who can genuinely give him a run for the money in the vengeance-driven Kryptonian super-villain General Zod (Terrence Stamp) and his equally bad-ass cohorts (Sarah Douglas and Jack O’Halloran). While it is still a pretty entertaining film by the standards of contemporary comic-book cinema, it plays far more unevenly today than it did 25 years ago–director Richard Lester has an unfortunate tendency to undercut the tension with silly jokes (such as the bad guy’s remaking Mount Rushmore in their own images), the moment when Lois finally discovers Clark’s secret identity is disappointingly weak and the final battle is resolved in such a dippy manner that it feels as if they just slapped it together on the last day of filming. However, there are enough laughs (mostly thanks to Gene Hackman’s return as Luthor), spills and appealingly mushy bits to make it still worth a look. While Richard Lester is noticeably absent from the bonus materials, this two-disc set contains a commentary from producers Pierre Spengler and Ilya Salkind, a pair of old television specials commemorating the making of the film and Superman’s 50th anniversary and the eight remaining entries from the 1940's cartoon series.

Some of the disjointed nature of “Superman II” comes from the chaos surrounding its production. As you may or may not know, “Superman” and “Superman II” were originally conceived as one long mega-movie that would be shot at the same time and split into two parts. Alas, production overruns shot that plan down and director Richard Donner set aside the “Superman II” material in order to concentrate on the first film. Eventually, he was fired by the producers and veteran British filmmaker Richard Lester was brought in to finish what would become “Superman II.” Alas, this required a lot of last-minute rewrites, especially when Hackman decided that he wasn’t going to stay if Donner wasn’t and when a lawsuit from Marlon Brando over profits from the first film inspired the Salkinds to yank out the scenes he had already shot for the follow-up. Over the years, there has been much speculation about how the film might have turned out if Donner had been allowed to complete it and “Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut” gives us a glimpse of what that would have entailed. Using existing footage, previously unseen deleted scenes, outtakes and even clips from the original screen tests to reconstruct Donner’s initial vision. It is pretty much the same basic story but the variations are intriguing–General Zod and the others are freed from their one-dimensional prison in the Phantom Zone via one of the nuclear missiles that Superman deflected in the first film instead of a bomb in the Eiffel Tower and the reveal of Clark’s secret identity is handled in a much smarter manner than the official version. Because this version has been cobbled together from numerous sources, it is all over the map on a technical level and may be rough going for casual viewers as a result but for those who have long studied the history of the “Superman” saga, this is a reasonably fascinating look at what might have been. Essentially a bonus feature in and of itself, this cut of the film features a short featurette on the making of the recreation, a few additional deleted scenes and an introduction and a commentary track from Donner explaining the various changes.

When “Superman III” came out in 1983, it made a lot of money but was regarded by virtually everyone who saw it as a major disappointment at the time. Watching it today, it isn’t hard to see why because the film really is a mess. It has some good ideas–the notion of Superman turning bad thanks to some ersatz Kryptonite is a promising one that allows Christopher Reeve to show some different shadings to the character–some funny throwaway gags (particularly the opening sequence of slapstick chaos involving burning penguin dolls and a man nearly drowning in his parked car) and a sweet reunion between Clark and high-school crush Lana Lang (Annette O’Toole, who would eventually go on to play Superman’s adoptive mother in “Smallville”). Unfortunately, Superman and Clark Kent were basically reduced to the level of supporting characters in their own story to make room for Richard Pryor, then at the height of his box-office popularity and written into the film in an effort to boost its commercial appeal. If this had been Pryor at the height of his comedic powers, it might have worked but this was the post-accident Pryor during the period of time when he was doing one banal comedy after another that would make him rich but would eventually destroy his career as a viable Hollywood lead. The result is long, not very funny, not very exciting and kind of depressing. If you make it through to the end and still want more, the disc contains another commentary from Salkind and Spengler and some not-especially-revelatory deleted scenes.

Despite its failings, “Superman III” does have a few entertaining moments, which is more than I can say about the all-out disaster that is 1987's “Superman IV: The Quest For Peace.”
By this time, the Superman property had been sold to Cannon Films, the schlockmeisters that made a fortune in the early 1980's with movies starring Chuck Norris and Charles Bronson and then squandered it on a series of increasingly expensive box-office disasters such as the arm-wrestling epic “Over the Top.” In this one, Superman (Reeve) takes it upon himself to rid the world of nuclear weapons (which violates his long-standing vow not to interfere with the decisions made by the people of his adopted home planet) and Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman cashing an enormous paycheck) takes it upon himself to make the world safe for nuclear weapons dealers by creating the radioactive Nuclear Man to defeat Superman once and for all. This time around, everyone looks bored, the special effects are especially shabby and the blend of dumb humor (thanks to Jon Cryer as Luthor’s “hip” nephew), badly staged action scenes and ham-fisted speeches about the need for nuclear disarmament (courtesy of Reeve, who was allowed to help develop the story in exchange for his participation) results in one of the crappiest movies ever made. Frankly, the only interesting thing about it is that as part of Reeve’s agreement with Cannon, the studio had to produce another film that he really wanted to star in–that film was 1987's “Street Smart” and while it didn’t do much for Reeve’s career, it did supercharge the career of the then-unknown Morgan Freeman, whose menacing turn as a deadly pimp mesmerized everyone who saw it. This disc includes a commentary from one of the writers and a number of deleted scenes, most of which were taken out of the film in the weeks before its release after a disastrous test screening and left an already disjointed film even more of a mess than it was in the first place.

Finally, we come to “Superman Returns,” this year’s attempt to restart the franchise after years of false starts with newcomer Brandon Routh donning the horn-rim glasses and tights as Superman/Clark Kent, a wildly miscast Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane and Kevin Spacey donning the bald cap to essay Lex Luthor. Neither as good as its supporters have suggested nor as bad as its detractors have indicated, this was an honorable attempt to make a Superman film that had the good sense to pretend that “Superman III” and “IV” never existed but which spent so much time attempting to emulate the original Richard Donner film (right down to the posthumous inclusion of Marlon Brando and Luthor’s diabolical plan being just another homicidal real estate deal) that it never quite found its way to becoming its own movie. It was mysteriously lacking in the spectacular action sequences that one might expect from such a film–was anyone out there satisfied with the idea of a “Superman” movie ending with the Man of Steel lifting something heavy instead of having a final confrontation with Luthor? Because it still works on some fundamental level, “Superman Returns” is worth a look but anyone expecting something as radical and invigorating as “Batman Begins” is most likely going to come away disappointed. The two discs covering this movie include the film, a three-hour documentary chronicling its production and numerous deleted scenes. However, seeing as how the much-discussed opening sequence set on Krypton is not among them and seeing as how there is now commentary from the normally talkative Singer, I suspect that a more elaborate edition will surface just in time to tie in with the next installment.

As exhaustive as all this sounds, there are still three more discs of material to be found here. One contains “Look, Up In the Sky!: The Amazing Story of Superman,” the previously released documentary from Kevin Burns that takes a detailed look at the “Superman” phenomenon from his comic-book origins through such current incarnations as “Smallville” and “Superman Returns.” Another includes all of the web blogs that Bryan Singer posted throughout the production of “Superman Returns.” Finally, the last one carries the documentary “You Will Believe: The Cinematic Saga of Superman” offers a detailed look at the ups and downs of the film series (including a surprisingly candid take on “Superman II”) and also features the most bizarre extra in the entire set–an unreleased pilot entitled “The Adventures of Super Dog” that was conceived after the death of George Reeves and would have continued the saga with the roles played by midgets dressed up like dogs. (Oddly enough, this is still better than “Superman IV.”)

A Warner Home Video release. $99.98.


THE ANT BULLY (Warner Home Video. $28.98): The major victim of the big animation wars of last summer–this film, which tells the tale of a young boy who likes crushing anthills is shrunk down to the size of an ant himself by his former prey to see how the other half lives and to learn the error of his, was came out the week after “Monster House” and the week before “Barnyard” and, despite an all-star voice cast (including Julia Roberts, Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep and the man-god that is Ricardo Montalban), wound up doing significantly less business than its competition. Though it lacks the brilliance of “Monster House,” it is a sweet and funny fable that infinitely better than the loathsome “Barnyard” and if I had to choose between the two, I’d take it over cars any day of the week.

BONES-THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (Fox Home Entertainment. $49.98): Do I make the easy comment involving the words “bone” and “Emily Deschanel”? Do I make the slightly more complex jest about Deschanel playing a forensic examiner sexy enough to bring the dead back to life? Do I just say “Emily Deschanel is a very attractive lady” and just get on with it? For now, I’ll go with #3.

CLERKS 2(The Weinstein Group. $29.95): Though the notion of Kevin Smith going back to the well for a sequel to his 1994 debut may have struck some as a desperation movie borne out of his failure to break through to a wider audience with the underrated “Jersey Girl,” this turned out to be a surprisingly smart and subtle comedy about what happens when Randall and Dante (Brian O’Halloran and Jeff Anderson) are finally dragged out of their extended adolescence into the adult world. Oh yeah, there is plenty of interspecies erotica jokes to be had as well. Once again belying his Silent Bob moniker, Smith appears on not one but three commentary tracks on this DVD–one with producer Scott Mosier and cinematographer David Klein, one with all the major cast members except for Rosario Dawson and a podcast commentary that he recorded with Mosier and Anderson that fans were meant to listen to on iPods during its theatrical release. That should be more than enough Smith to satisfy anyone not named Jennifer Schwalbach.

CRIMINAL MINDS-THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (Paramount Home Video. $64.99): The first season of the popular CBS television series that forces viewers to contemplate who they would rather face if given the choice–a slavering serial killer or a brilliant criminal profiler portrayed by Mandy Patankin. (Frankly, I’d go with the serial killer on the theory that while he or she might slice me into ribbons and use my innards for gumbo, they aren’t quite as likely to burst into a Sondheim medley.) Co-starring Thomas Gibson, a convincing choice for someone forced to face evil on a weekly business seeing as how he spent years in close proximity to that insufferable Jenna Elfman.

AN EVENING WITH KEVIN SMITH 2: EVENING HARDER (Sony Home Entertainment. $28.96): If three commentary tracks just didn’t sate your desire to hear Kevin Smith talk, this collection of two of his generally amusing and uninhibited free-form Q&A’s should do the trick. If not, I guess you’ll just have to make a public scene while walking out of one of his movies.

JOAN OF ARCADIA–THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON (Sony Home Entertainment. $49.99): So, Amber Tamblyn, your much-ballyhooed show about a sullen teen girl talking to God took a nose-dive in its second season (collected here), was unceremoniously cancelled and replaced with that nonsense in which the much bigger (you know what I mean) Jennifer Love Hewitt whispers to ghosts and now you reduced to doing sequels to crappy Sarah Michelle Gellar films–where’s your Messiah now? (I admit that I have gone kind of a long way simply to make a dumb and fairly obvious “Ten Commandments” reference but I am fairly bored, so you will have to forgive me.)

MONSTER IN A BOX (New Line Home Entertainment. $14.99): The second of the three stage-to-film translations of the work of the late monologuist Spalding Grey (falling in between “Swimming to Cambodia” and “Gray’s Anatomy”) finds him dealing at length with his struggles to complete his unfinished novel. Although director Nick Broomfield doesn’t display the cinematic chops that Jonathan Demme and Steven Soderbergh brought to “Cambodia” and “Anatomy,” the vivid images that Gray creates simply while sitting at a desk makes up for that. Hopefully, if this DVD does okay in the marketplace, it will finally inspire the long-awaited released of Gray’s best and most famous work, the currently MIA “Swimming to Cambodia.”

NOW YOU KNOW (The Weinstein Group. $19.95): Well, if three commentary tracks and two stand-up performances just weren’t enough of Kevin Smith yacking for you, he also chimes in on the commentary track for this film, the writing and directing debut from “Clerks” star Jeff Anderson. In this one, a lower-key effort than the usual View Askew shenanigans, Anderson stars as a guy who discovers at virtually the last moment that his fiancee doesn’t want to marry him and follows him as he tries to figure out what happened.

ROBIN HOOD (Buena Vista Home Entertainment. $29.99): Although considered by most to be a second-rank effort from the Disney animation department, this adaptation of the eternally popular legend is actually a pretty strong effort that is bright, colorful, funny and exciting, which is more than I can say about that Kevin Costner nonsense.

SEE NO EVIL (Lion’s Gate Home Entertainment. $28.98): In producing this silliness about a hulking eye-obsessed madman (played by wrestler Kane) stalking a group of ne’er-do-well juvenile offenders forced to clean up the abandoned hotel he has holed up in, WWE poobah Vince McMahon did for the slasher film what he did for football with the XFL–precious little.

ST ELSEWHERE–THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (Fox Home Entertainment. $39.98): Finally, the long-awaited DVD release of the first season of the classic NBC hospital show that long ago taught a young lad about anal rape, cool theme songs, the general unfunniness of Howie Mandel and that viewers will get really pissed at you if you dare to come up with a climactic episode that defies their expectations.

A STAR IS BORN (Warner Home Video. $19.98): This rocked-up remake of the classic screen story offers us the sight of Barbra Streisand as the dewey-eyed ingenue who becomes a musical megastar and Kris Kristofferson (clearly working for tequila) as the over-the-hill rocker who takes her under his wing and into his bed but can’t handle it when her fame outstrips his own. An enormous success when it was released in 1976, it now comes across as an extra-ripe chunk of 70's cheese that will only satisfy confirmed Barbraholics (who will rejoice in her commentary track) and observers of the tonsorial excesses of the decade.

TRIBULATION 99 (Other Cinema DVD. $24.99): One of the weirder films that you are ever going to encounter, this hilarious 1991 mockumentary from Craig Baldwin uses mountains of cleverly manipulated found footage to piece together a collage that explores the history of US intervention in Latin America by couching it in the terms of virtually every wild far-right conspiracy theory in existence.

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originally posted: 12/01/06 17:01:28
last updated: 12/02/06 03:01:01
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