Thursday, April 29, 2010

Superman and the Mole Men (1951)

Unless you've been living under a rock since 1938, you've probably heard of Superman. Perhaps the most famous character to have originated in American comic books, Superman more or less created the superhero genre and helped codify many of its archetypes. The last son of Krypton has been one of pop culture's most enduring figures, and has been translated into radio and television shows, movies, cartoons, toys, and practically everything else you can think of.

As far as his live-action portrayals go, everyone most commonly associates Superman with the late Christopher Reeve. But while Reeve's movies introduced the character to a whole new generation of fans, he was not the first person to don the red and blue tights in a feature film. That honor would go to George Reeves, the star of the Adventures of Superman TV series, which aired in syndication in the '50s.

As a trial run for the yet-to-premiere television show, the movie Superman and the Mole Men was produced and released to theaters. With Reeves replacing Kirk Alyn, who played the role in two serials in 1948 and 1950, the movie has become something of a forgotten part of Superman's cinematic history. But how does it hold up, though?

Our story takes us to the small town of Silsby, home of the world's deepest oil well. The drilling of said well has drawn the attention of intrepid reporters Clark Kent (Reeves) and Lois Lane (Phyllis Coates), who are covering the story for the Daily Planet.

Unbeknownst to the drillers, the drill has penetrated the subterranean lair of the "mole men," a race of small, odd-looking people. Their strange appearance, coupled with the fact that everything they touch begins to glow, sends Silsby's citizens into a panic. A lynch mob led by the violent Luke Benson (Jeff Corey) quickly forms, and it's up to Kent's alter ego, the heroic Superman, to save the day.

Okay, so the plot isn't very complex. But when you remember that it's more or less a 58-minute test pilot for a television show that wouldn't start airing for another year, a simple plot isn't really all that surprising. That said, Superman and the Mole Men isn't really that much of a movie. It probably would have worked better as an episode of The Adventures of Superman instead. (It actually was re-edited and broadcast as a two-part episode of the show.)

Judging it on its own merits, though, I didn't think it was all that bad. While the special effects are a bit primitive and the makeup for the mole men is kinda cheesy, there's something charming and likable about it. It's an innocent adventure that can be enjoyed by everyone, without the burdens of adult drama or themes like other, more recent superhero movies. And there's not a thing wrong with that.

In the director's chair is Lee Sholem, who would go on to direct fourteen episodes of The Adventures of Superman. He has a rather extensive résumé in the world of television, and his experience is obvious in his work on this movie. It looks exactly like what you'd expect a TV show from the '50s to look like. The extensive use of studio backlots and the way scenes are structured and filmed make that easy to see.

But while Sholem's work (and the movie's obviously low budget) makes it feel more like a TV show than a movie, that doesn't mean he did a bad job. He manages to keep things exciting and entertaining, and doesn't let the movie get boring. And really, that's all you can ask for sometimes.

Handling the writing is "Richard Fielding," a joint pseudonym for Robert Maxwell and Whitney Ellsworth. As I said, the plot isn't very complex at all. It's really just an anti-paranoia morality tale, which was timely in an era where everyone was afraid of the so-called Communist menace. There's not a lot to it beyond that, though, so if you're looking for deep storytelling, I don't think this is where you'll find it.

The best part of the movie, though, is the acting. In the primary roles of Clark Kent and Superman, George Reeves is all aces. He is charming, playing both Clark and Superman with a forceful confidence that makes it hard not to think of him as a hero. Reeves defined Superman for a generation, and in this, his first appearance in the cape and tights, I can see why.

As Lois Lane, Phyllis Coates is engaging, enjoyable, and entertaining. She plays the perfect foil for Clark, and in a nice change of pace, doesn't get all weak in the knees when she's around Superman. Most depictions of Lois outside of the comics have that happen, but Coates goes the opposite way. This allows her to make more of an impression, and the character and the movie are better for it.

The rest of the cast is mostly disposable, but I thought Jeff Corey was great as the movie's villain. He plays the role as the meanest, vilest snake possible, and though he's no Lex Luthor, Corey is a good enough villain for what the movie needed.

While the movie would probably be more comparable to Smallville or Lois & Clark than it would be to the five big-budget movies, Superman and the Mole Men isn't bad at all. At its worst, it's an hour of harmless, inoffensive fun that I'm sure will be a treat for the Superman fans who have yet to actually see it. On my usual scale, I'll give it three and a half stars and my approval. And even if you don't like it, you'll at least come away thinking it was better than Superman IV.

Final Rating: ***½

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Kick-Ass (2010)

I've only been reading comic books for about two years now, but I'd loved superheroes long before then. Even as a kid, I was enthralled with the idea of having incredible abilities and using them to save the day. I'd tie a blanket around my neck and run around my house, pretending I was Batman or Superman. And I know I wasn't the only kid like that, either.

But it's been a long time since I was a kid, and in that time, superheroes have become a lot more mainstream. With superheroes having tons of success in movie theaters and on TV this past decade, it's become cool to be a fan. It's even reached the point where people are putting on their own colored costumes and performing citizen's arrests of muggers and drug dealers.

However, the idea of these real-life superheroes didn't really make any sort of real impact on the comic book industry until 2008, when writer Mark Millar and artist John Romita Jr. created the book Kick-Ass. Published by Icon Comics, an imprint of Marvel Comics dedicated to creator-owned books, Kick-Ass tells the tale of a comic book fan who chooses to follow in the footsteps of his favorite characters and become the first real-life superhero. It's a fun read, and when it was eventually translated into a movie, that element of fun was carried over to the adaptation as well.

Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) is your average high school student. He doesn't fit in with any of the usual cliques or teenage stereotypes, and is invisible to practically everyone outside of his small circle of friends. While perusing the shelves of the local comic book shop, he begins wondering why nobody's ever tried becoming a superhero before. You don't absolutely need superpowers to help people, right? His friends have a good laugh at the idea, but Dave can't let it go. He ultimately chooses to take a little initiative and become a hero himself.

Donning an ugly green wetsuit and mask he bought online, Dave hits the streets looking for a crime to stop. His first outing, though, is a miserable failure. He is badly beaten, stabbed, and hit by a car. Dave spends weeks in the hospital being pieced back together, but emerges undeterred in continuing his new life as a masked vigilante.

His next time out, he succeeds in saving a man from a gang's attack. A video of Dave battling the gang ends up on YouTube, quickly becoming an Internet sensation and making Dave a folk hero known as Kick-Ass. The popularity of the YouTube video prompts others to become superheroes as well. Among them are Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and Hit-Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz), a lethal father/daughter duo systematically killing anyone and everyone involved with the drug ring overseen by mob boss Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong).

Blaming Kick-Ass for the attacks on his operations, D'Amico tasks his thugs with killing the green-suited hero. However, his son Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) has a different idea. Adopting the superhero persona of "Red Mist," Chris sends Dave a message about forming a partnership in order to lure him out. Big Daddy and Hit-Girl soon become involved as well, leading to a series of events that culminate in a bloody war where asses will most definitely be kicked.

I will confess that I hadn't heard of the Kick-Ass comic book prior to the announcement that the movie's production had begun. I quickly hunted down the comic and loved it, and between it and the movie's trailers, I was super-excited to see some live-action Kick-Ass. I was a bit worried, though, that it might follow in the footsteps of Wanted, another movie based on a Mark Millar comic. Wanted was a joyless, mean-spirited disappointment of a movie, so I was hoping that Kick-Ass wouldn't end up being more of the same.

However, I'm proud to say that I was wrong. Kick-Ass definitely does kick ass. It is a tremendously fun movie that I can't say enough good things about. It's everything I could have wanted out of a movie based on that particular comic. It's funny, violent, exciting, and treats superhero conventions with both respect and irreverence. While fuddy-duddies like Roger Ebert are getting on their high horses and calling Kick-Ass a morally reprehensible piece of crap, the movie actually is an over-the-top dream for fanboys, geeks, and lovers of action and dark comedy.

Helming Kick-Ass is Matthew Vaughn, who I felt did a fantastic job in bringing the comic book to life. He gives the movie an energy than never lets up once it gets rolling. The movie's brisk pace doesn't allow it to become boring, and with the efforts of cinematographer Ben Davis and the rest of the production crew, the movie is a treat to watch.

The music is equally awesome too. Vaughn puts a rocking soundtrack and cues from movies like For a Few Dollars More, 28 Days Later, and Stardust to excellent use, and also gets a fabulous original score from Ilan Eshkeri. Eshkeri's music is nothing short of excellent, and really suits the movie well.

One of the trickier parts of making Kick-Ass, though, had to have been in writing it. The comic's initial run hadn't yet ended by the time the movie entered production, with its final issue not hitting store shelves until this past January. Yeah, it took them two years to release eight issues, during which time the movie had already been made. So I'm sure that writers Vaughn and Jane Goldman had a rough time actually putting it together. (Unless, that is, they had a little help from Mark Millar during the writing process.)

However, Vaughn and Goldman have knocked it out of the park. Naturally, there are some differences between the movie and the comic book, but these changes don't have any negative effect on the movie. They all fit within the tone and scope of the movie they were making. Even the insane moments they added to the climax make things even more exciting and just plain awesome.

The best part of the script is that Vaughn and Goldman actually put the focus on the primary characters, shining a light on who they are and not just what they do. This is most evident in the handling of Kick-Ass, Big Daddy, and Hit-Girl. Obviously, it should be Dave who gets the lion's share of the character development, since it's technically his movie. But Big Daddy and Hit-Girl are given plenty of time to shine as well, and as they develop, they become more likable and entertaining. It's not hard to enjoy them and Kick-Ass, as Big Daddy and Hit-Girl represent the excitement of superheroics, and Kick-Ass is whom many within the movie's target audience will relate to. And that just shows how well the writing works.

What also works well is another tricky part of making the movie, the casting. Each of the actors hired for the movie bring their A-game, all of them playing their roles to perfection. In the lead role of Kick-Ass is Aaron Johnson, a British actor who is a relative unknown here in the United States. He's perfect for the part, playing the role with both the courage and cluelessness that the character needs. Kick-Ass is the movie's emotional center, a regular kid who finds himself neck-deep in a situation even he knows he could have avoided. Johnson is believable, making the character's fear, exhilaration, and fake bravado look 100% natural.

Playing our villains are Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Mark Strong. While Mintz-Plasse will probably be forever recognized solely as the dorky "McLovin" from Superbad, his performance in Kick-Ass goes along way in establishing another character he could be known for. You could argue that he's basically playing McLovin if he were the son of a mob boss and pretending to be a superhero, but Mintz-Plasse is funny and entertaining in the role.

Strong is also very good, playing his second consecutive villain after coming off Sherlock Holmes this past December. Strong is vicious yet charismatic, giving the movie exactly what it needed in a bad guy. He does a fine job, even if the other characters are the movie's primary focus.

But as good as everyone else is, the movie is completely stolen by Nicolas Cage and Chloë Grace Moretz. If the entire movie had been about them and their characters, I wouldn't have minded at all. (In fact, they kinda end up becoming the focus of the movie towards the end.) Cage may be dressed as Christian Bale's Batman, but he talks like Adam West's Batman, which makes him infinitely more amusing. He's obviously having the time of his life here, and it's contagious. Cage is tremendously funny when he has to deliver dialogue, and totally badass when he has to get down to business, which is why I'd call him one of the best parts of the movie.

If anyone can top Cage, though, it's Moretz. Only twelve years old when the movie was filmed, Moretz is tasked with playing a foul-mouthed tyke who racks up a rather impressive body count. Her fight scenes are some of the most memorable parts of the movie, and her dialogue is some of the funniest. I don't know what's so funny about a 12-year-old girl in a bright purple wig swearing like a sailor, but I laughed my head off nearly every time Moretz said a word. She is wonderful as Hit-Girl, giving a performance that is charming and straight-up cool.

The party poopers can say what they want about it, but I'm here to tell you the truth: Kick-Ass kicks ass. It serves notice to the entire superhero genre: you don't have to be lame like Hancock, and you don't have to be bleak and depressing like The Dark Knight or Watchmen. It's a movie that any adult who calls themselves a fan of the genre should see. On my patent-pending Five-Star Sutton Scale, I'll gladly give Kick-Ass four stars and my proud seal of approval. And if anyone wants to make a spinoff starring Hit-Girl, I wouldn't argue with that.

Final Rating: ****

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Parts: The Clonus Horror (1979)

Admit it: you've wondered what would be like to have a clone of yourself. If you feel weird about that, don't. I'm sure everybody has wondered about that sort of thing at least once. But while the idea of real human cloning has always raised all kinds of moral and ethical questions, there's nothing stopping it from being exploited by science fiction. Movies, novels, and comic books have used human cloning as a plot device countless times, many of which seem to range from mediocre to bad.

Among the bad is the 1979 flick Parts: The Clonus Horror. Perhaps most famous for being the focus of an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, Clonus is a movie with an intriguing concept that just doesn't turn out as well as it could have. So let's see where it went wrong, okay?

Hidden deep in the California desert is an isolated facility called "Clonus," a compound where clones of the wealthy and powerful are bred for the purposes of organ harvesting. They're put through vigorous physical training and are promised to be eventually "chosen" for a trip to the idyllic land of "America." Their true destination: to be put in suspended animation until their organs are needed.

The clones are raised to be naïve and unquestioning about their existence, but some do grow wise to things. Such is the case with Richard (Timothy Donnelly), who begins growing curious after he discovers an empty beer can in a nearby creek. His queries regarding what it represents are summarily dismissed by Clonus's higher-ups, prompting him to become more suspicious about things. Richard's curiosity regarding the outside world leads him to escape the Clonus facility, where he finds that America is not the utopian society he had been promised.

If that plot synopsis sounds somewhat familiar, then you're probably one of the few people who saw The Island. Michael Bay's box office bomb from 2005 borrowed a lot from science fiction movies from the '60s and '70s, one of them being the very movie I'm reviewing right now. The owners of Clonus's trademark actually filed a lawsuit and got a nice seven-figure settlement out of the deal. It's always kinda cool to see some obscure, low-budget indie movie get one up on a big-budget studio movie.

But does being ripped off by Michael Bay make Clonus good? I can't say that it does. Clonus is a movie with a lot of promise, but it's ultimately weighed down by its many flaws. The biggest of these flaws is the fact that the movie completely runs out of steam after about an hour or so. Once Richard gets to America, the movie hits a wall creatively. There's not a lot it can do after a certain point within the narrative because it essentially blows its load way too soon.

The movie's problems could be blamed in part on the script, credited to Ron Smith and Bob Sullivan. As I said, the movie's running on empty after about an hour. The rest of the movie is just the characters connecting dots that the audience put together long before they did. Smith and Sullivan could have written a great movie if they'd wanted to. All the tools were there. But a combination of poor pacing, annoying characters, and lackluster storytelling really hurts things.

Director Robert Fiveson does his best to try and fix things, however. He actually makes an effort to raise the movie from crappy to mediocre. Fiveson uses Max Beaufort's cinematography and Hod David Schudson's excellent score to establish an odd atmosphere where you can quickly tell that something isn't quite right and nothing is as it seems.

But as with the writing, Fiveson's direction starts falling apart after the first hour. While he does try his hardest, the movie becomes less and less interesting after Richard escapes Clonus. If the entire movie had focused on Richard finding out what Clonus is and climaxed with either his escape or the revelation of Clonus's secret activities to the world, the movie could have been a lot better.

It doesn't help anything, though, that Clonus has some really bad acting. With a bigger budget, the producers probably could have afforded better actors. The ones they did get, though, are all kinds of lame. This is especially true of Timothy Donnelly and Paulette Breen. I know the clones are supposed to have been intentionally dumbed down (as a plot point), but Donnelly and Breen play their characters as being just plain stupid. You get kinda tired of seeing them play dumb for the whole movie. Donnelly in particular spends much of Clonus with a rather dour, unhappy frown on his face. It seems to be his default facial expression throughout the whole thing, which is really weird to stare at for an hour and a half.

There are a few good performances in the movie, though. Three of them, to be exact, coming from Dick Sargent of Bewitched fame, character actor Keenan Wynn, and the late Peter Graves. Their collective screen time in the movie is way too short, but all three put forth some great work. I'm actually surprised that they'd appear in a movie like this, but a guy's gotta find work somewhere, right?

Parts: The Clonus Horror is one of those movies that couldn't really do anything with itself in spite of its intriguing concept. That's really a shame too, because Clonus could have been a really cool, thought-provoking movie. Instead, it's a mediocre disappointment whose only claims to fame are being mocked by Mystery Science Theater 3000 and getting ripped off by Michael Bay. Somewhere inside it is one heck of a great sci-fi movie, but it's still sadly waiting to be seen. Parts: The Clonus Horror gets two stars on my usual scale of five, and if you must watch it, I definitely recommend tracking down the MST3K episode. You can't go wrong with those guys.

Final Rating: **

Monday, April 5, 2010

Space Mutiny (1988)

I doubt it would be much of a stretch to say that space travel is one of science fiction's most enduring sub-genres. A lot of classic sci-fi stories have involved space travel, but there've been a lot of stinkers, too. Watch enough episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000, and you'll see a few bad space movies.

One of these is Space Mutiny, a movie from apartheid-era South Africa that the MST3K crew roasted in 1997. It's become one of the show's most popular episodes, not only because of the jokes made at the movie's expense, but because of how cheesy and just plain stupid the movie is. So let's dig in and see just where Space Mutiny went wrong.

Welcome to the Southern Sun, a colony vessel on a voyage to a distant planet after Earth was rendered uninhabitable. The journey has lasted for generations, long enough for many of its inhabitants to be born and eventually die without ever calling a planet home. While most of the Southern Sun's population is content to live on the ship, there are some among them who would rather just stop at the next sustainable planet they can find.

This opinion is primarily cultivated by Elijah Kalgan (John Phillip Law), who is scheming with the ship's engineer and a group of pirates from a nearby star system to orchestrate a mutiny and hijack the ship. Through the sabotage of a few key areas of the ship, Kalgan is able to wrest control of the Southern Sun for himself. A civil war soon breaks out across the ship, with Kalgan's sympathizers being combated by our brave hero, Dave Ryder (Reb Brown).

There are many movies out there that are so hilariously bad that you cannot avoid laughing at them, no matter what they're about. Among this number is Space Mutiny, a movie so cheesy and so lame that it stops being a sci-fi action movie and becomes an unintentional comedy. Space Mutiny is that special kind of bad movie that you know will suck as soon as you bring up the DVD menu, but you'll have a blast making fun of how stupid it is.

The role of Space Mutiny's director is credited to David Winters, though I've heard that may not be completely accurate. Winters supposedly left the movie shortly after the start of production to deal with some family issues. He would be replaced by Neal Sundstrom, who would direct the bulk of the movie. Sundstrom was unsatisfied with the final product, and had himself listed as the movie's "co-director" (a credit buried deep in the closing credits). Winters, himself not happy with the movie, was saddled with the directorial credit and left unable to get an "Alan Smithee" credit.

I read that bit of information on IMDB, so I don't know if it's actually true. But whoever did the directorial work did a really crummy job. The movie is riddled with continuity errors and general mistakes, something most obvious when one character is shot and killed by Kalgan, only to reappear five minutes later in the background of the next scene. Did they not notice that in the editing room? Or did they just not care?

It's amazing just how cheap the movie looks and feels, too. The space scenes are completely made up of stock footage taken from the original Battlestar Galactica, the music sounds like it was composed for a bad Super Nintendo game, and the movie looks like it had a budget of less than 100,000 bucks. The sets and costumes are laughable, and the most futuristic technology in the movie are computers that look like a cross between a Commodore Amiga and an IBM 5150 PC.

And let's not forget the chase scene with what appear to be carts made out of either bumper cars or motorized floor buffers, or the fact that the Southern Sun was quite obviously filmed inside a factory. The giant windows letting all that bright sunshine in are a dead giveaway.

But then, you have to remember that the movie isn't working with a very good script, either. Written by Maria Danté, it takes what would be a cool concept for a movie and makes something stupid out of it. For one thing, I don't see why there has to be a mutiny in the first place. I thought the Southern Sun's whole purpose was to move its residents to a new planet, so why is Kalgan a bad guy for wanting to actually live on a planet?

And what do the Bellarians have to do with anything? If you're unfamiliar with Space Mutiny, the Bellarians are pretty much a cult of mystics who spend all day twirling around those plasma lightning globe things that they sell at Spencer Gifts. They serve absolutely no purpose whatsoever, and there is only one scene in the entire movie where they interact with a member of the primary cast. Every second they're in the movie is pointless, confusing, and unnecessary.

All that's left for me to critique is the cast. Playing our intrepid hero is Reb Brown, whose only prior claims to fame were his starring role in two lame made-for-television movies based on Captain America that aired on CBS in 1979, and his Razzie-nominated performance in the goofy 1983 fantasy movie Yor, the Hunter from the Future.

I've seen a handful of Brown's movies, and I don't think I've seen him put forth a good performance in any of them. Space Mutiny is no exception; Brown is laughably dumb here. He looks like what would happen if you went back to high school and took the biggest, stupidest jock and made him the lead in the drama club's latest production with no warning. Brown feels lost, as if he doesn't know why he's there or what he's supposed to do. And all he really does do is shout a lot and yell like an idiot. He's even guilty of the occasional girly shriek. (No, I am not kidding.) If you're wondering why Reb Brown isn't known beyond an extremely tiny circle of B-movie aficionados, it's because he sucks.

Cisse Cameron plays Space Mutiny's token love interest, and she doesn't put forth a very good performance either. It doesn't help that Cameron is obviously much older than the character is supposed to be, which just makes things feel really awkward in her scenes with Brown and the actor who plays her father. She and Brown don't have much in the way of chemistry either, something I found weird because they actually got married after making the movie.

Rounding out the main cast is the late John Phillip Law as our villain. He's not great or anything, but his wild overacting is actually a lot of fun. Law chews the scenery in such a way that I have no hesitations in saying that he's the most entertaining part of the movie.

Space Mutiny is an undeniably bad movie. Trying to convince yourself of the opposite would be foolish. But it's the kind of bad movie that is a lot more fun than it should be. While it continues to remain obscure even after it received the MST3K treatment, Space Mutiny is a movie that I would certainly recommend to fans of cheesy science fiction and bad B-movies in general. While my final rating will be one and a half stars on the Sutton Scale, it'll get a big thumbs-up for entertainment value alone.

You know, I can't believe I actually made it through this whole review without stealing the "silly fake action hero name" gag from the MST3K episode. I'm proud of myself.

Final Rating: