Superman III (1983) Review

Director: Richard Lester

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

Runtime: 125 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

I think most people who’ve seen the Superman series would agree that Superman III is a step down from the first two. It’s not bad, but parts of it are a bit of a chore by superhero movie standards. Evil businessman Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn) is obsessed with cornering the market for certain commodities, so he decides to eliminate Superman (Christopher Reeve) with some artificial kryptonite to prevent the Man of Steel from interfering with his plans. There’s an interesting idea or two to be found here, but, overall, it feels routine.

Superman III is a lot more comedic than Superman (1978) or Superman II (1980), not that those films didn’t have plenty of comic relief. Much of the humor is provided by the character Gus Gorman (Richard Pryor), a down-on-his-luck dude who turns out to be a whiz with computers. Speaking of computers, they’re all over the place here, in all their bulky, 1980s-looking glory. The technology is mighty dated, as is the picture’s campy aesthetic, but it serves as a cautionary tale about the powers of new-fangled gadgetry.

On the action front, things are…adequate. There’s a nice punch-up involving Superman in a junkyard that I won’t spoil the details of, but the finale feels fairly lethargic at times for the conclusion of an action-adventure flick. The special effects are actually on the impressive side, but what good are they when the story is undercooked? It’s cool and all seeing Superman constantly saving the day, but he needs a tighter plot to back him up.

Although the musical score is done by Ken Thorne, John Williams’ classic themes make a return. Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) does too, but the main romantic subplot here is between the titular character and his hometown high school sweetheart, Lana Lang (Annette O’Toole). Okay, this one isn’t essential viewing, but it’s not torture. It has a few enjoyable moments, but it sort of takes a while for the actual plot to kick in.

My rating is 6 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.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) Review

Directors: Michael Curtiz and William Keighley

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Romance

Runtime: 102 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood was the first major film released by Warner Bros. to use the new three-strip Technicolor process to generate realistic colors on the big screen. It was a wise choice for that distinction. Set in medieval England, renegade Saxon lord Robin Hood (Errol Flynn) launches an insurrection against the vile Prince John (Claude Rains), who has taken over the throne of the country while the true king, Richard (Ian Hunter, not the one of Mott the Hoople fame), is off fighting in the Crusades. This is one of the best action-adventure flicks of the 1930s.

The movie benefits from an abundance of skillfully-made and very rousing action sequences (Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood even beats up a couple of goons with a dead deer at one point). This must’ve been one of the most action-packed motion pictures yet made back in 1938. Amplifying the thrills is Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s wonderful musical score. It’s a remarkably merry actioner, with characters constantly bursting out laughing at the slightest comic relief.

If there’s one fault to be had with The Adventures of Robin Hood, it’s that the film seems to endorse the foreign policy isolationism that was all the rage in the United States at the time of its release. Robin Hood chides King Richard at one point for his foreign adventurism, a sentiment that would look mighty dated one year later when World War II broke out (this is not to say that the medieval Crusades were justified, of course). Robin Hood’s traditional steal-from-the-rich-to-give-to-the-poor narrative also seems a bit muddled by the fact that he’s largely fighting for the sake of restoring a monarch to his throne here.

This is a lively and, dare I say it?, colorful quasi-historical action-adventure feature with a dash of romance (between Robin Hood and Maid Marian [Olivia de Havilland], of course). The characters are well-defined and Errol Flynn is perfectly cast as the titular hero. The action scenes and the musical score also hit the bull’s-eye, so watch it if you haven’t seen it already.

My rating is 8 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.

Captain Blood (1935) Review

Director: Michael Curtiz

Genre(s): Adventure, Romance

Runtime: 119 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The 1935 pirate adventure film Captain Blood established Errol Flynn as a major Hollywood star and was also the first of eight pictures that Flynn would star in with Olivia de Havilland. After being sold into slavery for tending to a rebel against the English government in the 1600s, physician Peter Blood (Errol Flynn) escapes from captivity to lead a motley crew of buccaneers on the high seas. It doesn’t quite live up to its promise, but this is still an able movie.

Let’s get something out of the way. Captain Blood is pretty slowly-paced much of the time. This isn’t The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), it’s something a bit less action-packed. Still, the action scenes are excellent when they do show their face. Whether it be a pirate ship bombardment of the port that Flynn’s character is enslaved in or a sword duel between Captain Blood and fellow pirate leader Levasseur (Basil Rathbone), the sequences depicting physical struggle are the highlights of the feature. Of course, the best, a naval battle complete with hand-to-hand boarding action, is saved for last.

Sometimes it can be hard to root for pirates, considering that they’re murderous marauders and whatnot. However, Blood’s followers here are a relatively benevolent bunch, sworn to share the booty they steal and not rape any women. Unfortunately, Flynn’s character’s pirate crew is a largely interchangeable horde, with few of these dudes standing out from one another. The special effects also deserve a mention, with the film having a few impressive miniatures in it. Erich Wolfgang Korngold provides a competent musical score.

Maybe I was just spoiled by watching another, superior Flynn swashbuckler, The Adventures of Robin Hood, first, but Captain Blood is hardly a high-octane thrill most of the time. Yeah, the action sequences are quite a treat when they do arrive, but there’s not enough combat to say that this is an action movie. Still, it’s not bad, so it is watchable if you’re curious.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

The Docks of New York (1928) Review

Director: Josef von Sternberg

Genre(s): Drama, Romance

Runtime: 76 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The era of silent cinema was nearing its end in 1928, but there were still several good movies left to be released without sound. One of them was The Docks of New York, directed by Josef von Sternberg. In this silent melodrama, Bill Roberts (George Bancroft), a coal-stoker for a barge docked in New York City, rescues a suicidal woman, Mae (Betty Compson), who jumped off a pier into the harbor. The blurb on Rotten Tomatoes from critic Matthew Lucas says that this picture is about “the forgotten men and women of the working class looking for their own slice of happiness in grungy places.” I think that that sums up the feature pretty well.

The most striking aspect of The Docks of New York is its visual style. The proto-noirish cinematography is the highlight of the movie, being some of the very best of the silent era. The film dives into the grimy world of coal-shoveling onboard a seafaring barge on two occasions, and these sequences are pretty memorable. It should also noted that this flick is only 76 minutes long, so that’s a plus.

The romantic story at the core of The Docks of New York isn’t really that special, but it’s engaging enough to work. After watching, it may seem like a fairly thin premise for a motion picture, but, as I stated earlier, the whole thing’s under an hour-and-a-half, so it doesn’t overstay its welcome. Most of the characters are well-defined, but, considering how small the cast list is, that’s something they shouldn’t mess up.

The camerawork and seedy, gritty atmosphere of this flick are its big assets. The plot is simple and straightforward, but that’s not an issue. Fans of silent romance movies will love the Hell out of it, but I’d recommend it to anybody who wants to see what silent films were doing when they were about to be phased out by talkies. It really shows how far the art form had come since, say, The Great Train Robbery (1903).

My rating is 7 outta 10.