Monday, May 16, 2011

The Many Faces of Lex Luthor

Lex Luthor as President of
the United States of America
Since his first appearance in Action Comics, issue #23 in 1940, the archrival of the world’s greatest hero has evolved into a villain worthy of the classification Super. He is considered one of the top ten greatest villains of all time by both Wizard magazine and Beginning as an overweight, middle-aged, red haired mad scientist, Lex Luthor bears little resemblance to his original design. Over the years he has become slender, younger, balder and craftier. Despite these physical transformations the one constant characteristic has been Luthor’s personality. Even transitioning from a mad scientist to a corporate tycoon, Luthor was able to retain his diabolic persona. Whether on the page or on the screen, the artistic representation of the character has always incorporated one or more of the above mentioned physical attributes. Sometimes his screen persona has influenced his print incarnation and vice versa. In terms of his physical presentation the only constant key factor aside from his personality is his identifiable bald head, and even that isn’t always a constant – thank you very much Gene Hackman. Throughout the decades since his inception there have been several actors who have had the distinct honor of portraying the “greatest criminal mind of all time,” Hackman being one of them, but more on him later.

Lyle Talbot as Lex Luthor
Atom Man vs. Superman (1950)
Ten years after his introduction in the comics, Luthor made his big screen debut in the second Superman serial, Atom Man vs. Superman (1950). In the film Luthor was played by versatile b-movie star Lyle Talbot (Glen or Glenda (1953), Plan 9 From Outer Space (1958)). The plot of the film revolves around Luthor posing as a villain called “Atom Man,” who holds Metropolis hostage with his atom disintegration machine. Throughout the film he conducts several schemes, all of which are thwarted by Superman. This in turn causes Luthor to create a synthetic form of Kryptonite in order to subdue Superman. The film also features an early form of “The Phantom Zone” eleven years before it premiered in the comics. It is interesting to note that the character of Lex Luthor never appeared on The Adventures of Superman (1951) television series, which featured George Reeves taking over the title role from Kirk Alyn, who played Superman in the serials. However, Talbot’s physical appearance as Luthor in Atom Man vs. Superman did serve as the characters model in the comics for the next few years.

When Alexander Salkind and his son Ilya purchased the film rights to the Superman property in 1974 they did so with the intention of legitimately bringing the man of steel to the silver screen. In order to do so they needed talented actors to portray the characters believably. Resolving to cast A-list movie stars in supporting roles in order to secure financing they struck gold, literally, with Oscar winners Marlon Brando (On the Waterfront (1954) & The Godfather (1972)) as Superman’s father, Jor-El and Gene Hackman (The French Connection (1971)) as the villainous Lex Luthor.

Hackman’s portrayal of Luthor was much more light and comical than Talbot’s dry, straightforward approach to the character. For starters, Hackman refused to shave his head, making him the first Lex Luthor to sport a constant, full head of hair. It is alluded to that he is in fact wearing a series of wigs and for the few shots where he is bald, Hackman is in fact wearing a prosthetic cap. This vain characteristic of his personality, coupled with his elaborate underground lair and constant claims of intellectual superiority over his bumbling henchman, Otis (Ned Beatty), makes him one of the most insecure Luthors to appear on the screen. Hackman’s Luthor does mark a significant point in the characters history, shifting from the evil scientist persona towards the business tycoon of the 1980s. He retains both sets of traits, but since his principal motivation is real estate and not money that is the first step towards legitimizing his criminal organization. There are even early hints at Luthor’s future interest in politics. Hackman played Luthor in Superman: The Movie (1978), Superman II (1980), and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987), which saw the character return solely to his mad scientist roots.

In the 1990s, while Superman Lives (199?) was digging its own grave, Superman: The Animated Series (1996) was soaring to new creative and artistic heights. Inspired by the success of Batman: The Animated Series (1993) and the Max Fleisher Superman cartoons of the 1940s, Superman: TAS introduced the characters of Metropolis to a whole new generation of fans. Unlike most of the films that had been made, or attempted up to that point, the animated series drew direct inspiration from the comics. Showcasing an array of villain from Superman’s less known rogue gallery such as Toyman, Mr. Mxyzptlk, Metallo, Bizzaro, Lobo and Brainiac, the focal point of evil always remained Lex Luthor.

Modeled after Telly Savalas as Ernst Stavro Blofeld from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), Luthor is presented in his contemporary form as a scientifically motivated business tycoon. Voiced by Clancy Brown (Bad Boys (1983)), Luthor comes off as much more even keeled and confident than previous incarnations. Brown’s naturally deep voice matches the physical presentation of the character on the screen perfectly. This extra effort made in the casting helps the story retain the atmosphere of action and adventure motivated by devious intentions. One only has to look at Brown as "The Kurgan" from Highlander (1988) to see why he would have been a perfect choice in any form of the character. Calm, cool, and collected, this version of Luthor is a formidable adversary for the Man of Steel. He never lets his guard down or allows his emotions to get the best of him, like a disciplined intellectual warrior. Brown has continued to voice Luthor in post- Animated Series endeavors making his portrayal of Luthor the longest in the characters history.

Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor
Superman Returns (2006)
Almost twenty years after Luthor last appeared on movie screens filmmaker Bryan Singer (X-Men (2000), X2: X-Men United (2003)) brought him back as the principal villain in Superman Returns (2006). For the role of Lex, Singer cast long time collaborator, and fellow Oscar winner (The Usual Suspects (1995), American Beauty (2000)), Kevin Spacey. Once again Luthor is occupied with acquiring land for the purposes of real estate development. In many regards Spacey’s take on the character is a rehash of Hackman’s performance from the first two Superman movies from the 70s and 80s. Although Spacey’s delivery is drier and his demeanor is a little more bitter and angry, his overall performance echoes Hackman’s from thirty years before, right down to his choice of henchmen and extensive wig collection. It is uncommon knowledge that the film was intended to be a sequel to Superman II (1980), which would explain the stark consistencies between the two renditions of Luthor. However, if that was the case, Singer shouldn’t have spent as much screen time re-establishing the characters and jumped right into the action of the story. Spacey was going to reprise his role as Lex Luthor in the abandoned Superman Returns sequel before the current reboot was commissioned.

Michael Rosenbaum as
Lex Luthor
Smallville (2001-2011)
The most recent face attached to the Luthor legacy is Michael Rosenbaum, who portrayed a young version of the famed Super Villain for seven consecutive seasons on the television series Smallville (2001). Throughout the series Lex struggles to define himself as a man of honor, unlike his father who he perceives as a monster. Beginning with good intentions, Lex is gradually drawn into the unexplained mysteries surrounding his friend, Clark Kent (Tom Welling). Lex ultimately becomes fixated on Clark and their friendship deteriorates into a bitter rivalry as Lex sinks deeper into the shadow of his father. Rosenbaum delivered arguably the best portrayal of the character to date. Aside from a fantastic cranial structure he possessed all of the inherent characteristics of Lex from every incarnation of the character, plus he knew when to use them and how much to give in each performance. Intelligent, conniving, charismatic, sympathetic, romantic, humorous, deceitful are just some of the attributes showcased in his performance as Lex. After his departure from the series the show took a big hit, not just in terms of plot and character, but in overall quality. Rosenbaum reprised his role for the series finale at the end of the tenth season, which aired on May 13th, 2011. For the few scenes in which he appeared it was as though no time had passed. He fell right back into the character’s personality with impeccable delivery and presentation. His will be a hard act to follow, but it will be interesting to see who dawns the dome against Superman in the future.

It really doesn’t matter whose face, or even whose skull is portraying Luthor. A character as dynamic and complex as Lex relies on attitude, plain and simple. If the actor possesses the right qualities that are consistent with the character then physically they just need to have a shaved head, and as Hackman proved they don’t even need that, although he’s not the shining example of the character either. Everyone has their favorite and it usually correlates with their generation. Who they grew up with, or who they are the most familiar with, not taking into consideration, or investing the time in anyone else. Thus as time continues to pass so will the faces of timeless characters like Lex. 

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

OVERLOOKED: Duck, You Sucker (1971)

In the annals of filmmaking there are some names that are uncontestable when it comes to their contribution to the craft. Whether it is through their ingenuity, execution, impact, or overall style there is a short list of filmmakers who always delivered the goods. Among this short list of uncompromising visionaries is famed Italian filmmaker, Sergio Leone. Spanning more than four decades as a filmmaker with only a dozen titles to his credit as director, Leone developed his craft for more than a decade as an assistant and second unit director in Italian cinema. This old school approach to filmmaking is seldom seen today, but shows in the quality of his work when compared to most contemporary and independent filmmakers who think because they like movies they can make one. That is simply not the case and no degree from the most prestigious film school can compensate for experience, which Leone had in spades.

From his first uncredited credit as an assistant director on
Bicycle Thieves (1948), Leone rose to prominence as an auteur in the 1960s with his highly successful Dollars Trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966)). The films, which featured American actors Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach, all received distribution in the U.S. and opened Hollywood’s doors to Leone. In typical Hollywrong fashion they wanted to exploit the filmmaker and insisted that he continue with the western genre, which he helped revolutionize. Over the next eighteen years Leone developed another trilogy of historical action oriented dramas that appropriately began in the old west and ultimately ended in the late 1960s, incorporating one hundred years of character driven history. These films are Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Duck, You Sucker (1971), and Once Upon a Time in America (1984).

Bookended by historically romantic fables, the middle chapter in this trilogy often gets overlooked by fans and filmgoers alike, despite having just as much merit and polished perfection as his other films. Content aside, fans of his work will recognize his technical craftsmanship instantly. From the opening shots, which lead into an establishing sequence, Duck, You Sucker is signature Leone. It is odd because initially Leone wasn’t going to direct the film, he was just going to produce. It was at the insistence of his lead actors that Leone directed the film.

The film stars Rod Steiger and James Coburn as a pair of culturally diverse renegades whom ultimately become partners and finally friends. Steiger plays Juan, a Mexican bandito whose only concern in life is for himself and his six bastard sons who act as his gang. All of this character development and back story is established within that first elaborate robbery sequence. Steiger’s cunning as an actor is a trait that he shares with his character, Juan. Overall his performance is reminiscent of Eli Wallach’s in Leone’s earlier picture, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966). In fact, Steiger’s portrayal of Juan is more like Tuco (from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966)), fused with Daffy Duck and Speedy Gonzalez from the Looney Tunes. His eccentric, exaggerated enthusiasm, coupled with his self-centered, cut-throat sensibilities gives Juan a larger than life persona that dominates the screen.

Coburn, on the other hand, is constantly keeping Steiger’s character in check. His subtle entrance in the film, about 20 minutes in, quickly turns explosive – literally. Coburn plays John Malloy, an ex-IRA bomber who was fighting in the Irish revolution and wound up hiding out in Mexico. It is instantly understood that Malloy is a complete, total, and utter badass as he roams the desert alone, armed to the teeth with highly unstable explosives. A quick demonstration with a single drop of nitroglycerine is all it takes to get Juan’s, and the audience’s, attention. Shrouded in mystery, Malloy’s story is slowly revealed throughout the film in a series of flashbacks to his time in Ireland leading up to the revolution. His cool demeanor always prevails, exhibiting both confidence and intelligence. Strangely, his character seems to be in tune with the attributes of Bugs Bunny, also from the Looney Tunes troop. Together Juan and Malloy are a comical, destructive duo if ever there was one and watching their relationship grow over the course of the film is enough to warrant watching it, action and adventure aside.

As with all of Leone’s films, the one constant star, aside from the actors on the screen, is Ennio Moriconne’s score. Duck, You Sucker was the fifth collaboration between Leone and Morricone and despite the familiar elements involved, the score remains distinct from any of their previous work. Once again vocal arrangements were used as instrumentation to create an effective presence within the score, a method they had explored it in their earlier collaborations. The main theme is on par with anything Morricone composed for Leone’s more prominent westerns and is considered by some to have in fact surpassed his earlier achievements. Regardless, it is at least worth a listen and is capable of standing alone from the film.

Quite possibly the biggest reason for Duck, You Sucker not getting the recognition and acclaim of Leone’s other films is that it faced many makeovers upon release. The film was heavily cut to censor much of the political turmoil depicted in the scenes involving the Mexican revolution. The studio also wanted the film to have a broader audience and cut the film down further to acquire a PG rating. Upon being re-issued the film was given a new title. In the United States it was re-titled “A Fistful of Dynamite” to let audiences know there was some relation to the dollars trilogy. In Europe the film was re-titled, “Once Upon a Time…The Revolution,” to associate it with Once Upon a Time in the West, which had been very successful overseas. The only thing these efforts did was help the film fall into obscurity.

Thanks to restorative efforts Duck, You Sucker did make it to DVD in its intended presentation. Its funny to think of a film being censored for its content based on the context of the time in which it is made, especially when it is a history piece set 50+ years in the past. Films are supposed to be reflective of the time in which they are made. Its what gives them substance and creates a lasting impact. The filmmaker’s vision is the project’s foundation. Once it is compromised it is just a matter of time before the whole thing begins to crumble. Had the film remained consistent, both in title and content, then the audience would have accepted it easier.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Five Movies That Didn't Grow Up From Childhood

Have you ever gone to revisit a movie that you loved during your childhood only to find yourself disappointed in your own sense of judgment and intelligence? Chances are this has happened more than once and for every film that holds up there is at least one that leaves you scratching your head as though the director pulled a Jedi mind trick on you. Take Child’s Play 3 (1991) for example. In third grade, that movie was the shit, now it’s just shit. It’s not even worth watching to make fun of with your friends. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) on the other hand, remains badass to this very day! It all comes down to a matter of quality. As a child your focus isn’t on dialogue, acting, or logic; it’s on experiencing things vicariously, through any available outlet, that you’re not allowed to do otherwise.

When it comes to reminiscing about movies from childhood, overcoming nostalgia is quite possibly the biggest hurdle. Nostalgia is a hell of a thing, especially when your mind doesn’t recognize the original appeal. Many people have a hard time letting go of the past, or coming to terms with reality. It can be tough and there is no accounting for taste. People fail to realize that while they may have watched and enjoyed the film endlessly as a child it failed to have a lasting impact on their overall growth and development. Just because you have fond memories of the movie doesn’t mean that it made you who you are today. That is what separates the keepers from the clingers. To look at a film from childhood through the eyes of an adult you’d have to ask yourself, “would I want my kid watching this crap?” Fear of raising an idiot should be enough of a deterrent for anyone on the fence about a title from their youth.

All of the films on this list were produced in the 1980s, which is rapidly becoming known as the “you had to have been there” decade. It was a time before the Sci-Fi Channel commercialized schlock. Nowadays the market is flooded with poorly executed films that may have one or two lasting elements, but overall don’t merit their cost or running times. In the 1980s horror and fantasy films were flooding the market based on the success of Star Wars (1977) and Halloween (1978) from the previous decade, but their lack of quality coupled with high budgets and low returns opened a new market of direct-to-video. As time progressed the Sci-Fi channel cornered the market and now, with the exception of a few shows in syndication, provides a Mecca for immature, amateur, cheesy movies – the likes of which would make Tom Servo and Crow short circuit.

The following is a list of five flicks that didn’t hold up for me personally. I had such fond memories of some of them and hardly remembered all or part of the rest. I know enough to know that I, or someone I knew, liked them and that I witnessed them. Among them there is only one that I would consider subjecting myself to again. Without any further ado, here are five movies that didn’t grow up from childhood.

Munchies (1987) Dir. Tina Hirsch

This movie was on ALL THE TIME when I was younger and I watched it every chance I got. Unfortunately, at the time I couldn’t see the striking similarity to the far superior film, Gremlins (1984). The premise of little monsters that are essentially walking piranhas that regenerate when dismembered was awesome. Throw into the mix a bunch of crazy, eccentric, violent characters and you’ve got the making for a great film…if you’re five. At twenty-five you’ve got a bunch of left over rubber hand puppets from Pizza Hut and too much free time. I’m sure Harvey Korman would have been on board either way.

House 2: The Second Story (1987) Dir. Ethan Wiley

This one really broke my heart. I remember loving this movie as a child, way more than it’s predecessor, House (1986). I watched it a couple of years ago after not having seen it for more than a decade. Suffice it to say, I found myself fast forwarding through most it. The plot was so random it was as though writer/director, Ethan Wiley, took every miscellaneous scene, character, and idea he had scribbled down since junior high and sewed them together as one inept script. Aside from some good art direction and production design the movie’s only saving grace is the sequence featuring John Ratzenberger as Bill, the sword wielding, know-it-all repairman. Other than that the film stars Arye Gross and features a young Bill Maher playing your typical ‘80s slimeball.

Swamp Thing (1982) Dir. Wes Craven

If you’ve read the comic series, particularly when Alan Moore was writing it during the mid-80s, then you know Swamp Thing is badass. You’d also know that he is an effects heavy character and the only way to do him justice is with some kind of budget. The alternative is precisely what this movie delivers – hammy over acting, a giant rubber suit, and a drawn out plot. Even the marketing tag line across the top of the poster leaves much to be desired by way of creativity. Still, out of all the movies on this list, Swamp Thing is the only one that retains a shard of interest from me. There is a special attachment to the character that exists within me based on his adventures portrayed in his comics. 

Nightbreed (1990) Dir. Clive Barker

How on earth Clive Barker went from the gruesome terror displayed in the Hellraiser series to this, I will never know. This movie is actually one that I don’t remember from childhood. I know it was there and I saw it during that time, but there was no viable recollection, even while subjecting myself to it again. The only thing I could think of while watching it was, “are they for real? Is this supposed to be serious?” Honestly, thinking about it now, the creatures in the film remind me of another movie that I saw as a child, Freaked (1993). The only difference is that Freaked was intentionally absurd and therefore successful, while Nightbreed was miserably a turd and therefore sucked.

The Ice Pirates (1984) Dir. Stewart Raffill

The most interesting thing to note about this movie, other than they recycled models from Logan’s Run (1976),  is that both Ron Perlman and Anjelica Huston appear in it. The film is just trash and quite painful to watch, especially if you didn’t grow up with it. However, if you do feel strongly about it to the point where it made an impact on your life then you’re probably and idiot anyway and won’t understand this criticism. Again, this film reminds me of another visual narrative abomination, Mom and Dad Save the World (1992). Granted, they’re going for a particular style, and I get that, but there is still such a thing as good and bad, and of course quality.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011


When a career spans more than twenty years it is very easy to lose sight of the beginning. Most times people will even miss it all together and walk in during the middle. If they like what they see they’ll usually play catch up and view the things they missed. If they don’t then they’ll move on to the next person that catches their eye and holds their attention. However, when you’re there from the beginning, which is a relative term encompassing a time span of early work, there is a relationship that develops with the performer. As time goes on the relationship strengthens or weakens, but that initial foundation remains intact. Depending on when its established the viewer can even connect and relate on different levels with the characters at different times of their life. When that happens it’s a clear sign that the actor has done their job and the character has a dynamic, universal appeal. John Cusack’s performance as Lane Meyer – the heartbroken, suicidal, goofball in Savage Steve Holland’s Better Off Dead… (1985) is one of those characters.

Seeing the film as a small child, Lane’s antics were comical and his approach to things was eccentric, almost like a real life cartoon character. Add into that the dramatically more bizarre characters around him: Charles De Mar, his misguided, well intentioned best friend, Ricky Smith, his perverted shut-in neighbor, Badger, his highly intelligent, emotionally mature kid brother, and the Chinese drag racing brothers and the movie does a good job of disguising it’s dark undertones. The themes of emotional development, alienation, depression, and suicidal overreaction that plague many teenagers around the world only resonates with viewers who can relate to them. From that perspective Lane not only appears normal, but comes off as an older brother figure to any viewer under the age of ten.

Watching the film again as a teenager, or an adult who has gone through that period of life, the comedy is still there, but Lane becomes a more identifiable character. Unless you connect with his adversary, Roy Stalin, in which case you probably wouldn’t like or understand the movie, Lane possesses many qualities and outlooks that people gravitate towards. Even his relationship with his parents transcends age and understanding. The mother is kind and caring, but also clueless and unresponsive. The father is authoritative and demanding, but also confused and has trouble relating. It’s a typical youthful situation with a chaotic, comedic backdrop that not everyone could have pulled off.

After a few small supporting roles in films such as Class (1983) and Sixteen Candles (1984), Cusack was cast as the male lead in The Sure Thing (1985). Teetering on the edge of the famed “Brat Pack” of the 1980s, he began to carve out his own niche in cinema. By straying from the pack, which usually worked ensemble in one configuration or another, Cusack was able to develop his leading man talents. His work in comedies, where success is based on timing and delivery, allowed Cusack to make a smooth transition into more dramatic roles. Even in a minor or supporting role, such as Denny Lachance in Stand by Me (1986), his strength and discipline as an actor keeps the focus on the scene and character rather than the performer.

Throughout his career Cusack has transitioned successfully from comedy to drama and ultimately to thrillers, with some spillover in action. Romantic leads (America’s Sweethearts (2001), Serendipity (2001)), conmen (Money for Nothing (1993), The Grifters (1990), Tapeheads (1988)), and tormented protagonists (1408 (2007), Being John Malkovich (1999)) are his forte in particular. In Grosse Pointe Blank (1997) he was able to combine all of those inherent attributes into the role of Martin Q. Blank, a lovelorn hit man struggling with his feelings brought up by attending his ten year high school reunion. In many regards it is the ultimate John Cusack film. 

However, to many people he will forever be the dumped boyfriend. There are strong parallels of heartbreak between many of his films. Must Love Dogs (2005), High Fidelity (2000), Say Anything… (1989), Hot Pursuit (1987), and One Crazy Summer (1986) – also directed by Savage Steve Holland all lead back to Lane Meyer in Better Off Dead… (1985).

For those of you who have never seen the film it can be viewed here in its entirety, for FREE. Enjoy!

"The crowd swells with anticipation as the light turns green."