Category Archives: ★

Atom Man vs. Superman (1950, Spencer Gordon Bennet)

Lyle Talbot is the best thing about Atom Man vs. Superman. Overall, he might even give the best performance–he flubs some material, but it’s better material than his only serious competitor, Noel Neill, ever gets. There aren’t great performances in Atom Man vs. Superman. The serial wouldn’t know what to do with them.

Talbot is Atom Man. Or Lex Luthor. The serial tries to confuse the good guys by creating two villains, even though it’s pretty obvious from early on Talbot’s both of them. Though it’s actually unresolved; Atom Man might–technically–not be Talbot. Doesn’t matter. A lot of Atom Man vs. Superman doesn’t matter. Like most of the first half of the chapters–it runs fifteen–and the last two. Atom Man isn’t one of those serials where nothing in between the first chapter and the last chapter matter. The last chapter is nowhere near impressive enough to matter.

The serial has a few subplots, like Talbot making artifical kryptonite, Kirk Alyn getting trapped in another dimension (“the empty doom”) while his coworkers wonder what’s happened to Clark Kent, Neill going to work for Talbot. The artificial kryptonite plot line requires a lot of precious metal theft, which means good guys chasing goons and goons kidnapping good guys. Jimmy Olsen Tommy Bond–who starts off the serial in a repeat from the previous one picking on Neill for, you know, being a woman–ends up the most frequent damsel in distress. Neill gets grabbed a couple times, but she at least sticks up for herself. If only then to turn around and beam nonsensically at Alyn when he arrives to save her.

But Neill and Talbot are good adversaries. Neill and Alyn don’t have much chemistry, which seems more the fault of director Bennet and the three screenwriters than anything else. When she’s rescued, she beams at him. When Alyn’s in the Clark Kent spectacles, they bicker without chemistry. They’re both slightly petty towards each other without much cause. Usually because the pettiness just puts them in danger–Neill’s always in the soup because she ignores Alyn (as Superman) warning her about a danger–but the toxic professional environment is a problem. It comes from the top down, of course, with editor Pierre Watkin. He sits at his desk–the strangest thing about Watkin is I think he’s supposed to be gruffly likable and instead he’s just a boob–anyway, he sits at his desk, tells his reporters they’re lying to him, defends super-villain Talbot, has Bond turn on his radio for him. It never gets too bad because Watkin’s part is never so important he’s not dismissible; it’s just another of Atom Man’s easily fixable fails.

Again, director Bennet and the three screenwriters. They do no one any favors.

The serial’s at its best when Neill is working for Talbot. She’s doing on the street interviews for his TV network start-up. Of course, it’s all a front for his robbery ring. Talbot can make robots, flying saucers, earthquake rays, atomic missiles, a teleporter, a spaceship, fake kryptonite, and some other things, but when it comes to fueling his endeavors? Breaking and entering. And when he gets busted, his fallback plan is to literally destroy the planet. Again. Screenwriters not doing anyone any favors. Especially not Talbot.

The three or four chapters with Neill working for Talbot get her out of the Daily Planet newsroom and onto the backlot streets. There are chase scenes, there’s banter with the interviewees, the serial all of a sudden shows some personality. Because when Neill’s playing second-fiddle to Alyn, it has none. She stands, usually silent, staring at him with a beatific smile, and time drags. Usually because it’s just after Alyn–as Superman–has come up with some idiotic plan. The script has zero awareness for Alyn, both as Superman and Clark Kent; at least as Clark Kent, he’s not constantly going into danger and getting in trouble. Plus, Talbot’s teleporter gets the most use getting goons out of trouble so it’s not even like Alyn can catch them. He’s a dunce.

Sadly the script doesn’t give Talbot any material observing Alyn’s constant mistakes; instead, Superman’s supposed to be a worthy foe. Even if he walks into every one of Talbot’s traps with a big grin on his face.

The special effects are another issue. Or lack thereof. Superman flying is, just like in the previous serial, an animated figure over live action footage. At one point, Atom Man vs. Superman does a great sequence–with the little animated Superman–for the flood and it’s awesome. The serial hadn’t suggested it was going to be so ambitious as to use actual miniatures up to that point. It’s never anywhere near as ambitious again. The last two chapters, which kind of should be the big finish, have nothing. Superman versus atomic missile and spaceship and flying saucers ought to be a lot better.

A bigger budget, a better director, a better script, any of these things would help immensely. Because without them, the serial’s something of an incomplete effort. Especially with that lackluster finale. Take Alyn, for example. He does the job the serial asks of him. He has a few good moments throughout the fifteen chapters, but nothing sustained. When Neill is off working for Talbot, Alyn starts ridiculing Bond just because he can. It shouldn’t be a surprise; as Superman, Alyn’s not always concerned with people’s safety or, you know, even their lives. He’ll occasionally let someone die. Or torture out a confession.

Atom Man vs. Superman, despite running over four hours, never gives Alyn any character development. He does go to cover the flood, but it’s just a setup for some Superman. He doesn’t have anything independent of the main story. Even when it seems like he might get something–the kryptonite subplot–the serial just skips away from him. It usually skips away to go back to Talbot, which isn’t terrible, but the slightest semblance of character development might do wonders.

Neill gets the most sympathy in bad scenes. She’s got zip the last two chapters. Her big showdown with Talbot–in her final kidnapping of the serial–doesn’t pay-off.

In the supporting cast, which is practically bit part level of supporting, Don C. Harvey and George Robotham are good. Harvey’s a science goon, Robotham’s Neill’s cameraman. If Jack Ingram–as the chief on-the-street goon–were better, it might help. He’s not terrible, but he’s utterly flat.

Atom Man vs. Superman’s a disappointment to be sure, but more because it doesn’t deliver on the promise of its midsection than the opening. It starts an okay serial (minus Bond being such a dip), gets better (as Bond shuts up), then defaults back to okay (with Bond still keeping the dip to a minimum because he’s barely in it). Neill and Talbot keep it moving, with Alyn a sturdy enough “lead.”

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet; screenplay by George H. Plympton, Joseph F. Poland, and David Matthews, based on characters created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster; director of photography, Ira H. Morgan; edited by Earl Turner; produced by Sam Katzman; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Kirk Alyn (Superman / Clark Kent), Noel Neill (Lois Lane), Lyle Talbot (Luthor), Tommy Bond (Jimmy Olsen), Pierre Watkin (Perry White), Jack Ingram (Foster), Don C. Harvey (Albor), Paul Stader (Lawson), George Robotham (Earl), and Fred Kelsey (Police Chief Forman).


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The Stepford Wives (1975, Bryan Forbes)

The Stepford Wives puts in for a major suspension of disbelief request in the second scene–what is Katharine Ross doing married to Peter Masterson. They’ve gone from being a somewhat posh New York couple to a New York couple with kids and so they’re moving to Connecticut. Lawyer Masterson is going to take the train in to town while aspiring photographer Ross hangs around in the country, ostensibly taking care of the kids.

Ostensibly because they disappear for the most part, even though they ought to be around all the time, yet aren’t. Not keeping track of the kids, except when they need to be around for emphasis or plot contrivance, is one of director Forbes and screenwriter William Goldman’s fails. It’s one of their joint fails. Both have their own personal fails. It’s not even one of their major joint fails. It’s one of the “oh, yeah, they forgot about this subplot” fails. There are many.

Ross is bored in the small town. She doesn’t have anything in common with the other wives, who seem solely interested in keeping a tidy houses for their hard-working men. And, right away, Masterson joins the town’s men’s club and starts spending every night with the boys. In their big scary restored mansion (more in it in a bit).

Luckily, Ross soon finds the other new “Stepford Wives”, starting with Paula Prentiss. They’re fast friends who, after consulting with another new-to-town wife, Tina Louise, decide to start a women’s group. Except it turns out all the other women have to complain about is not having enough time to clean their houses, which Ross, Prentiss, and presumably Louise (who gets one of the lousier roles in a movie with an endless supply) all find peculiar.

Meanwhile, at home, Masterson is drinking all the time but loving hanging out with the boys. The boys–Josef Sommer, Franklin Cover, and George Coe–are a bunch of bores. Creepy silver fox Patrick O’Neal runs the club. He used to work at Disney. The other guys all work in cutting edge technology. William Prince, playing a retired pin-up artist, is the only one with any social skills. Masterson only drinks to excess in private, like he’s got something to hide from Ross.

Not to entirely spoil the movie, but it’s because he and his friends are plotting to murder Ross. It’s not like Stepford isn’t in the dictionary. The “twist” is a whole other thing I don’t even want to talk about. It’s not undercooked, it’s raw; there’s a lot of undercooked material in Stepford, but the twist hasn’t even been in the oven. Not the way Forbes and Goldman want to do it. Apparently they disagreed on the ending and Forbes got his way, but even if Goldman had it his way, it wouldn’t make up for the awful character development throughout the film informing it.

Masterson’s kind of mean to Ross. There aren’t any good men in Stepford, which is fine and accurate, but Masterson’s still too much of a jerk right off the bat. He’s such a trollish jerk, it’s hard to believe he’s a lawyer. He’s not a jerk in the right ways. It’s also hard to believe he and Ross ever had chemistry. In the first act, before the murder plot, he thinks he’s piggishly charming, even though Ross never positively responds to him. Goldman entirely slacks off on Masterson’s character establishment and development.

Masterson doesn’t transcend the material. It’s also not entirely the material’s fault. Maybe it’s just the casting director’s fault. Or just Forbes’s fault. Forbes has a shockingly bad handle on the material.

There’s satire and commentary about commercialism–at times–in Stepford Wives. Goldman usually comes up with adequate material and then Forbes utterly flops on it when directing the scene and the actors’ performances. You can see where the joke ought to be in Stepford, but instead of getting there, you watch Forbes repeatedly miss it.

The only excellent performance in the film is Ross. She’s outstanding. She’s got a crappy, underdeveloped character who can’t keep track of her kids, doesn’t have a believable “art” arc in her photography, and is inexplicably married to a jackass, but Ross is outstanding. The one thing Forbes does right is let Ross be alone. It’s no good once Forbes is trying generate scares–in that aforementioned scary mansion–but when it’s just Ross existing in a moment, it’s great. Ross is acting in a far better film than Stepford Wives. She’s just doing it in Stepford Wives.

Prentiss is likable but not good. She’s funny and seems to have a better handle on how to do the satire scenes than Forbes; she’s the only one who doesn’t look lost. But who knows because Forbes is hesitant to let the Wives act against one another too much in the same shot. He avoids those shots, preferring two Wives at a time in close-ups.

Paula Trueman is also fun. She apparently runs the town newspaper, or at least writes for it. She’s got a lousy part as it turns out. It’s like Goldman adapted the source novel without reading it. He never establishes continuity of behavior in the supporting cast. Trueman’s character doesn’t even get a name, even though the character–and actor–are a couple of the film’s stronger assets.

Otherwise the performances are basically just adequate. Even Louise, who gets a crap part, is just adequate. She just has more wasted potential than some of the other Wives, principally Nanette Newman. Newman is Ross’s neighbor who Ross never gets to meet without Prentiss being along because Newman has nooners with her husband. Is it for sure her husband? It’s worse if it is Sommer than if it isn’t, actually. There’s an extreme (and unexplored) connotation if it’s the latter, but if it’s the former… well, it’d be another of those major joint fails for Forbes and Goldman. Because even though the movie’s supposed to be satirical, Forbes doesn’t do metaphor. Even if it’s in the script. Forbes skips it.

I’m going a little longer than Wives deserves–unless one’s talking at length about Ross’s performance–but I do need to get to the finale. It’s like they ran out of money and decided to do a haunted house sequence. Because haunted houses always get scares. Except Owen Roizman doesn’t shoot Stepford like a thriller, he shoots it like a seventies drama. Michael Small’s score is for a seventies drama; mostly. When it’s trying for the horror, it’s for a bad horror movie. The music goes from one of the film’s pluses to minuses real fast.

So Forbes stumbles through the finale, which has Ross running from her fate. There’s no closure for Ross’s character arcs, not even the hint the character arcs have occurred. In fact, the finale gives one of the bad guys a monologue describing Ross to her. It’d be nice the monologue, which seems to greatly affect her, actually matched her character she’d been playing for the previous 110 minutes.

But it’s also a badly directed finale in a constrained set. It’s a bad, boring set and Forbes has no ideas for it. The movie deserves better. Ross deserves much better. She keeps Stepford afloat all by herself. Even as Forbes and Goldman try to sink it from under her.

The Stepford Wives is a peculiar, if predictable, fail.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Bryan Forbes; screenplay by William Goldman, based on the novel by Ira Levin; director of photography, Owen Roizman; edited by Timothy Gee; music by Michael Small; production designer, Gene Callahan; produced by Edgar J. Scherick; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Katharine Ross (Joanna Eberhart), Peter Masterson (Walter Eberhart), Paula Prentiss (Bobbie Markowe), Patrick O’Neal (Dale Coba), Tina Louise (Charmaine Wimpiris), Nanette Newman (Carol Van Sant), Paula Trueman (Welcome Wagon Lady), George Coe (Claude Axhelm), Josef Sommer (Ted Van Sant), Franklin Cover (Ed Wimpiris), Neil Brooks Cunningham (Dave Markowe), Carol Eve Rossen (Dr. Fancher), William Prince (Ike Mazzard), and Robert Fields (Raymond Chandler).


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Touched with Fire (2015, Paul Dalio)

Somewhere early in Touched with Fire’s third act, it becomes clear there’s not going to be any performance potential from leads Luke Kirby and Katie Holmes. The movie doesn’t really want to be about them. Director (and writer) Dalio skips all the character development, leaving Holmes dulled and Kirby perpetually in between a Zach Braff impression and a Casey Affleck one.

Same goes for “special guest stars”–but in the low budget sense, not the late seventies melodrama one–Bruce Altman, Griffin Dunne, and Christine Lahti. While Dalio’s script shafts them all, it’s unequal. Altman has the smallest part, which is kind of best given Dunne and Lahti don’t get any character development either. They get a lot of dramatic setup for character development; once again, Dalio’s not interested.

In fact, Dalio’s never interested in anything long enough in Touched With Fire for it to stick.

Holmes and Kirby are bipolar young adults who just happen to be in their mid-thirties. They look good for it, but they still clearly are too old to have so few life experiences. They live in New York City, both supported by their parents. Dunne is Kirby’s dad, Lahti and Altman are Holmes’s parents. The film introduces the principals (including Dunne and Lahti), then contrives a way to get Kirby and Holmes together. They’re both committed, Kirby because of criminal behavior, Holmes because the doctor cons her into it.

Maryann Urbano is great as the doctor. It’s also one of the better written roles in Dalio’s script; Urbano’s behavior and actions towards Kirby and Holmes are consistent. No one else is ever consistent. They sway with the changing winds of scene need.

So after not liking one another, Kirby and Holmes soon bond over poetry. Holmes is formerly successful (and published) poet–the timeline on when is unclear–and Kirby is a rap poet. Though Dalio never gets into what he means by rap poetry. It’s associative rhyming. When the film starts, Kirby is popular at his performances, Holmes is not.

Kirby thinks being bipolar informs his creativity, Holmes… well, actually, it’s never clear what Holmes thinks. Because–even though the film shows her writing poetry a lot–her feelings about it are never even acknowledged. Unless it’s one of the scenes where Kirby’s telling her how she doesn’t feel about it. Those scenes are in that ramshackle third act.

Anyway. Kirby and Holmes fall in love (while committed) but circumstances separate them. When they do get back together, determined to embrace the creative benefits of being bipolar, the film turns into a series of montages. It already had a bunch of montages while they were meeting in the middle of the night, but there was at least drama there. They poison an attendant. They battle Urbano. Their respective parents dismiss them. There’s drama.

Not in the later montages. In those montages, as the film has already shown the dangers of their mania, have some drama as they get closer and closer to the disaster, but not really. Because all the self-destructive character traits Kirby exhibited before meeting Holmes? Gone. Does Dalio explore the change? Nope. It doesn’t really matter for Holmes because she’s now entirely defined by her relationship with her parents. Even though Dunne’s always along to disappoint Kirby, the scenes anchor around Lahti and Altman.

There’s also the film itself. It’s entitled Touched with Fire because of a book called Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament by Kay Redfield Jamison. Who appears in the film as herself, for a rather disappointing sequence. But the book is about famous creatives through history who were manic-depressive. Byron, Van Gogh (lots of Starry Night references in the film too), and many others. Kirby sees himself in that lot, mostly in the first and third acts.

Only Touched with Fire, the movie, never explores the characters’ creativity. Holmes doesn’t grow as a poet because of her relationship with Kirby. In fact, he controls her work. Or he doesn’t. It’s unclear. Because Dalio isn’t interested. So it’s a film about being creative without anything to say about actual creativity. Montages of being silly in public don’t cover it.

Both leads are disappointing. More Kirby because he’s got the bigger part. Dalio doesn’t give it anywhere to go. Holmes has somewhere to go–three times–and Dalio stays as far away from her as he can during them. Dunne and Lahti are great. More Dunne because Lahti gets some of the worst inconsistent behavior scenes. Altman’s fine. He’s got absolutely nothing to do except be present and Bruce Altman.

Dalio’s strength as a director in his ability to execute the production on its limited budget. His composition’s never terrible but sometimes predictable and never exciting. It’s boring without being tedious. He doesn’t direct the actors, which is a problem. The leads both need it. His musical score’s damned good though.

Editing and cinematography are both thoroughly competent. Better editing might’ve done wonders.

Touched with Fire has all sorts of interesting places to go and goes none of them. It frequently pretends the opportunities aren’t even there. And there was no reason for it to fall apart in the third act.

Watching Touched with Fire, you keep wanting it to get better or be better or do the right thing. It rarely does. And never when it counts.

1/4

CREDITS

Written, edited, and directed by Paul Dalio; directors of photography, Kristina Nikolova Dalio and Alexander Stanishev; music by Dalio; production designer, Kay Lee; produced by Jeremy Alter, Nikolova Dalio, and Jason Sokoloff; released by Roadside Attractions.

Starring Luke Kirby (Marco), Katie Holmes (Carla), Christine Lahti (Sara), Griffin Dunne (George), Maryann Urbano (Dr. Strinsky), Bruce Altman (Donald), Daniel Gerroll (Dr. Lyon), and Kay Redfield Jamison (Kay Jamison).


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Street Smart (1987, Jerry Schatzberg)

Somewhere around the halfway point in Street Smart, when both female “leads” get reduced to a combination punching bag–figuratively and literally–and damsel, the movie starts to collapse. It doesn’t collapse in a standard way. It doesn’t give too much to either of its dueling stars, Christopher Reeve and Morgan Freeman; instead, it gives them less. It collapses out of a kind of inertia. After promising sensational developments, it offers none.

Except, of course, Reeve embracing his mediocre (but good looking) white guy privilege. Like everything else in the ending, however, Street Smart doesn’t really want to pursue it. It just wants to be over.

Lots happens in the third act–assaults, murders, two jail sequences for Reeve (though the second is after the movie’s stopped treating him like a protagonist)–and none of it gets any resolution from the characters. The film skips over their reactions to their subsequent actions. It rushes through the most intersting part of the story, when Reeve’s hubris brings suffering on everyone.

The film starts with Reeve as a floundering New York (sadly filmed in Montreal because Cannon) magazine reporter. Despite going to Harvard and being good looking, Reeve can no longer hack it. The managing editor, Andre Gregory, thinks he’s boring. Until Reeve sells them on a lifestyle piece on a Times Square pimp. They buy it. Only problem, Reeve doesn’t know any Times Square pimps to write lifestyle pieces about. He does, however, take Times Square working girl Kathy Baker out for ice cream.

So Reeve makes up the story. Girlfriend Mimi Rogers is supportive, as Reeve losing his job means they can’t pretend to be successful yuppies anymore.

Simultaneously, Times Square pimp Freeman has just accidentally killed an abusive john. The D.A., Jay Patterson, is out to get him. Patterson is everything Reeve isn’t. Patterson’s not good looking, but he’s honest and hard-working. He’s also cruel as shit. Reeve’s not cruel. He learns to be cruel (not thanks to Patterson, who keeps getting him thrown in jail, but Freeman, but it’s in the dreadful third act so who cares).

Patterson wants Reeve to snitch on Freeman. Only Reeve doesn’t know Freeman. Until Freeman finds out Baker knows Reeve and then decides to use him as a defense witness. Reeve needs Freeman to convince Gregory he’s got a real pimp. Reeve and Freeman have a successful reciprocal relationship, complicated when Reeve gets too close to Baker and vice versa.

The one thing Street Smart never does–oh, I forgot, Reeve also becomes a TV news reporter because he’s rather good looking and photogenic–but the one thing the film never does is show Reeve reacting to where he was wrong in his fiction. He sees Freeman’s real life, in some of the film’s best scenes–even when it’s over dramatic, the acting is superb (director Schatzberg realizes then forgets the cast is best when in frame together)–but he never really reacts to it.

He’s got the Baker subplot instead.

And Baker’s great. It’s just not great for the movie.

Most of the acting is excellent. Freeman is phenomenal. If he doesn’t give the best performance in sunglasses ever in Street Smart, he’s got to come close. Patterson’s great. Baker’s great. Reeve’s quite good some of the time. The rest of the time the writing’s just too thin. And he and Rogers have zero chemistry.

Rogers isn’t good. She’s occasionally okay, but it’s a crap part. Gregory is annoying. It seems unlikely such a nitwit could run a successful magazine, even if he’s rich and white.

Erik King is pretty good as Freeman’s sidekick. Anna Maria Horsford is awesome as Freeman’s “business manager.” She only has a couple scenes but she’s so good.

Schatzberg’s direction never makes much impression either way. Given the film’s Montreal shooting location, I guess it’s impressive how well he makes the film feel like New York. Adam Holender’s photography should get some of that credit as well. It’s not great cinematography and he really should’ve worked with Schatzberg on some of the establishing shots, but it’s convincing.

Robert Irving III’s score is a little much. Miles Davis contributing results in some nice trumpeting, but not much in the way of effective movie scoring.

Street Smart has some great acting going for it and a lot of interesting character intersections. It’s a bit of a cowardly script. It runs away from the race angle; brings it up, then (impressively) runs away from it, enough fingers to fill ears and cover eyes. Basically it just needed a strong rewrite–or a stronger director–but it’s a Cannon production. Its producers don’t care about making a good movie, just selling one.

So, for a movie about a mediocre white guy’s bullshit catching up with him and forcing a metamorphosis (for better or worse), it’s a fail. But for a Cannon production, it’s pretty amazing.

1

CREDITS

Directed by Jerry Schatzberg; written by David Freeman; director of photography, Adam Holender; edited by Priscilla Nedd-Friendly; music by Robert Irving III; production designer, Dan Leigh; produced by Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan; released by Cannon Films.

Starring Christopher Reeve (Jonathan), Morgan Freeman (Fast Black), Kathy Baker (Punchy), Jay Patterson (Pike), Mimi Rogers (Alison), Erik King (Reggie), Anna Maria Horsford (Harriet), Shari Hilton (Darlene), Frederick Rolf (Davis), Michael J. Reynolds (Sheffield), and Andre Gregory (Ted).


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