Superman Returns (2006) Review

Director: Bryan Singer

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Drama, Romance, Science-Fiction

Runtime: 154 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

2006’s Superman Returns picks up just about where the original Superman series of the 1970s and 1980s left off. Yes, we have a different actor playing the Man of Steel this time around (Brandon Routh, instead of Christopher Reeve), but it seems to follow the same continuity of the old franchise. In this adventure, Superman returns to Earth after spending five years looking for the remains of his homeworld of Krypton, only to find that Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has found a new boyfriend – Richard White (James Marsden) – and that Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) is back to plotting his evil schemes. It’s a bit on the bloated side, but I can still say that I like it.

Superman Returns is in its groove when dealing with the big action set-pieces. Advances in special effects since the 1980s and that sort of thing mean the disaster and rescue sequences are more spectacular than before, with one of the more memorable ones involving an out-of-control airplane that Superman must prevent from crashing into a baseball stadium. Backing up the titular superhero throughout the movie is the returning John Williams musical theme from the ’70s and ’80s, though the main composer for the picture is John Ottman.

The biggest problem facing this action-adventure is its overlong runtime (a little over two-and-a-half hours). The climax goes on for a while, and there’s numerous scenes that the movie still has to show us after the grand finale, which might test your patience. Another minor fault of the flick is that Superman sometimes exhibits some stalker-ish behavior. I mean, the guy can see and hear through walls.

Superman Returns is a better movie than Superman III (1983) and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987), and roughly on par with Superman (1978) and Superman II (1980). A couple of parts go on and on, yet it’d be a mistake to entirely dismiss the feature for this. Unless you’re a Christopher Reeve purist, Superman fans will probably experience enough moments of delight to make it worth watching.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Chef (2014) Review

Director: Jon Favreau

Genre(s): Comedy, Drama

Runtime: 114 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

You don’t have to be a “foodie” to enjoy this dramedy that was written by, directed by, and starring Jon Favreau. This feature’s plot’s about chef Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) who leaves the restaurant he works at after losing creative control of the cooking process and exploding at a food critic, Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt), who gave him a negative review. Despite the detailed food preparation scenes, this is a movie just as much about people as it is about stuff you can eat.

Chef has a star-studded cast and succeeds on both the comedy and drama fronts. No, it’s nothing groundbreaking (the film’s detractors compare it to the comfort food that the main character dislikes having to make), but that’s okay. Sometimes it’s acceptable to just get a familiar story that’s told well. Characters are well-defined and the pacing never lags.

Chef tries to connect to the zeitgeist of its time, and this is most noticeable in its way of handling social media. References are made to staples of modern life, like Twitter and memes, but it doesn’t really feel like the film is trying to be hip-and-with-it. The character who knows the most about all of this technology is the main character’s son, Percy (Emjay Anthony), and the titular figure must bond with his kid to learn the ropes of social media.

When it wraps up, Chef is an enjoyable father/son flick that delivers more than just cooking sequences. While I generally prefer watching pictures with lots of explosions and gunfire, this is a welcome change of pace. It’s a fine dramedy with personal stakes, rather than existential ones. However, why don’t the characters wear seat-belts more often?

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Superman II (1980) Review

Directors: Richard Lester and Richard Donner

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Drama, Romance, Science-Fiction

Runtime: 127 minutes (standard version), 116 minutes (Richard Donner Cut)

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

As promised at the end of Superman (1978), the superhero would return in a sequel that would pick off where the first left off. Here, Superman/Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) must prevent the three Kryptonian criminals from the opening of the previous film – Zod (Terence Stamp), Ursa (Sarah Douglas), and Non (Jack O’Halloran) – from taking over Earth. It’s a pretty similar experience to the 1978 picture, but some people prefer this one.

Superman II greatly benefits from having more intimidating baddies than the first movie in the franchise. The menace of Zod, Ursa, and Non, while offering a few comedic moments, is mostly played straight. They have the same superhuman abilities as Superman and put up quite a fight against the titular character. Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) returns here, but he’s out of the picture for too much of the runtime to make that much of an impression.

The special effects are fine, sometimes looking quite quaint. The action scenes are an improvement over the ones in 1978’s Superman. The White House assault and the big battle in downtown Metropolis between the title character and the three major villains stand out most. The mass destruction caused by the latter sequence is highly impressive considering its release date.

John Williams doesn’t do the music for Superman II (the score is composed by Ken Thorne), but his amazing themes return. Anyway, this one is only marginally less-good than the first in the series. It doesn’t feel as tight as it potentially could’ve been, but the wholesome heroics are back, and this one does manage to top Superman in some regards. If you liked the 1978 flick, you’ll probably have similar feelings about the first sequel.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Superman (1978) Review

Director: Richard Donner

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Drama, Romance, Science-Fiction

Runtime: 143 minutes (standard version), 151 minutes (2000 restoration), 188 minutes (Extended Version)

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

Before Iron Man (2008), before Batman (1989), there was 1978’s Superman. Yes, this is, more or less, the grandpappy of the modern superhero picture…so, how does it hold up? The story concerns itself with Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve), a human-like being sent from another world to Earth as a child. His extraordinary powers, like super-speed and super-strength, convince him to take up the role of a superhero to protect the people of his adoptive planet. Of course, he also has to fall in love (with fellow reporter Lois Lane [Margot Kidder]) and foil the plot of a mad genius.

Superman has a bit of a reputation for being a boring character, but I think that the 1978 film does a swell job of humanizing him. He may be able to snatch a speeding bullet out of midair, but he has the emotions of any typical human, and the dramatic challenges he confronts (like the decision to leave the farm he was raised on or not) make for some of the more memorable moments of the movie. However, arguably the best aspect of the picture is its titanic John Williams musical score that you’ll probably be humming long after the feature is over.

The special effects here are a mixed bag. Some hold up nicely, but most are pretty dated. The tone is sort of weird, veering from serious to hokey. The threat posed by the villain, madman Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), varies by scene. His nefarious plot arrives a bit too late in the runtime and many of his scenes are marred by silly comedy that undermine his potential menace. The climatic resolution to Superman’s problems may also leave some audience members scratching their collective heads.

Despite being the first major comic book superhero flick, Superman has a couple of touches that could be considered fairly meta for their time (like a brief, humorous bit when Clark Kent decides not to put on his Superman costume in an exposed telephone booth surrounded by people gawking at the disaster he’s trying to dampen the impact of and find a more reclusive spot to don his suit). All in all, this is a good, but not great, entry into the action-adventure genre. It’s got the heart and the music of a wonderful movie, but some elements just weren’t willing to play ball.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) Review

Director: Leo McCarey

Genre(s): Drama, Romance

Runtime: 91 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Orson Welles famously said that Make Way for Tomorrow “would make a stone cry.” I didn’t quite have the same reaction to the film as Welles, but I can still safely say that this is a very good movie. The plot concerns itself with an elderly couple, Barkley (Victor Moore) and Lucy Cooper (Beulah Bondi), who, upon losing their home to the bank, have to spend their time split up from each other at the homes of their grown children. A happy flick it ain’t, but this is still considered one of the semi-forgotten classics of 1930s American cinema.

One of the things that one notices first is how ahead-of-its-time Make Way for Tomorrow sometimes feels. It’s not just the production values, but also the nuance of the story it tells. There are no clear heroes or villains here, just humans trying to live their lives. The grown-up offspring may not want a whole lot to do with their parents, but the elderly characters are awkward, grumpy, intrusive, naive, and/or inept.

This motion picture really hits its stride in the last act (some obvious rear-projection aside). Parts of the film prior to this occasionally felt a bit stagey, but once the couple goes out and gets to enjoy the city for a few precious hours, the movie really blossoms. The excellent performances are just the icing on the cake. The ending is no cop-out.

While I certainly like Make Way for Tomorrow, I can’t really say I enjoy it as much as, say, Orson Welles. I’m not really sure why…maybe I needed a hero or two to root for and/or a villain or two to hiss at. Still, this is a moving look at aging, generation gaps, and people acting like people. It’s only about 91 minutes long and pretty modern-feeling, so, even if you’re not a fan of straight dramas, there isn’t much of an excuse to not watch this one.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Black Legion (1937) Review

Directors: Archie Mayo and Michael Curtiz

Genre(s): Crime, Drama

Runtime: 83 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Black Legion has one of the most intriguing plots for a film of its time period. After factory-worker Frank Taylor (Humphrey Bogart) is passed over for a promotion that’s awarded to an Eastern European immigrant, Joe Dombrowski (Henry Brandon), the former decides to join an underground terrorist organization that resembles the Ku Klux Klan. This very good movie has a ripped-from-the-headlines quality to it, as there actually did exist a xenophobic Black Legion in the American Midwest in the 1930s.

It’s a fascinating (and relevant) story, told well with minimal fat (it is only 83 minutes long, after all). It carefully sets out everything you need to know and escalates tension and action from there. Perhaps the highlight of the picture is the scene where Bogart’s character takes his oath to join the Black Legion. Now there’s a creepy sequence for you! The main character clearly makes some very poor decisions over the course of the runtime, and it’s hard not to agonize over his choices.

Black Legion isn’t a subtle movie, which may turn off some viewers. The bad guys are very clearly evil and the forces of righteousness get a speech or two to explain the sins of lawless and prejudiced behavior. The courtroom finale doesn’t really feel like the most explosive way to conclude the story, and it goes on for a while (considering the runtime). Oh, well, it’s still a swell, little flick.

This motion picture features a nice message and efficient storytelling. It has a few interesting touches, like a behind-the-scenes look at a live news broadcast over the radio. Fans of Humphrey Bogart and anti-fascist cinema will want to rent a copy. Also, check out that whoopee cap that Bogie wears in the factory scenes! My, how fashion has changed!

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) Review

Director: James Gunn

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Comedy, Science-Fiction

Runtime: 121 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

When the sci-fi film Guardians of the Galaxy was released and became a hit, it seemed like Marvel could make a movie about any superhero or group of superheroes and it would end up a huge success. Had anybody outside of the comic book world actually heard of the heroes in this flick prior to its production? A talking raccoon? A walking tree? How could Marvel pull this off? Anyway, the plot of this picture is about a group of space criminals who find themselves in possession of an Infinity Stone and pursued by a murderous warlord named Ronan (Lee Pace) who desires the powers given by the rock.

Guardians of the Galaxy could’ve easily been a confusing mess, but it’s executed with skill and enthusiasm. Despite all of the fancy special effects and massive action scenes, it’s easy to see why these sorts of movies really appeal to so many people: the characters. The people inhabiting the galaxy of this feature are easily distinguished from one another and all have colorful and vibrant personalities. One actually cares about the struggles that they face.

Other important aspects of this movie’s appeal are its action, music, and world-building. The action scenes aren’t mind-blowing, but their choreography is clear and there’s a reasonable excitement value. The soundtrack is largely made up of classic pop and rock tunes, and has become one of the standout elements of the flick. The world-building here could’ve potentially been overwhelming, with lots thrown at the audience, but it’s handled gracefully.

Yes, Guardians of the Galaxy does feel a little…Marvel-y at times. The action, dramatic, and comedic beats are carefully placed into the film in a calculated manner to maximize audience engagement. Make of that what you will. Still, this is a charming and funny movie with no slow spots. There have certainly been superhero pictures worse than this.

My rating is 7 outta 10.