Saturday, June 3, 2006

The Greatest Superhero Movies of All Time (IMHO)

Although they have dominated comic books for over sixty years, there was a time when superheros had problems when it came to the movies. During the Golden Age of comic books (about 1939 to 1949), the only way in which a superhero could be seen on the big screen was in serials. And while some of the serials were quite well done (for instance, The Adventures of Captain Marvel), most were strictly kid's fare and some were downright atrocious (the two Batman serials are examples of these). I am not sure what the first superhero feature film was, but it may well have been Superman and the Mole Man, released in 1951. Superman and the Mole Men was the pilot for the classic Adventures of Superman TV series, released to theatres prior to the series' debut. Although it has the advantage of having George Reeves in the title role, the movie does not play nearly as well as the show did. Shot on the cheap, it is burdened with a script that simply cannot sustain itself for its 58 minutes length. Batman: the Movie, the 1966 feature film spun off from the TV series, was entertaining, but like the TV show it played the Caped Crusader for comedy.

It would not be until Superman (released in 1978), Superman II (released in 1980), and Batman (released in 1989) that superheroes really got their due on the big screen. Since then there have many superhero movies released and many of them are actually good. I thought it might be interesting to do a run down of what I consider to be the five best.

I. Batman Begins: If superhero movies have suffered one fatal flaw over the years, it is that they have tended to focus too much on the heroic alter ego than the secret identity they keep most of the time. This is not the case with Batman Begins. The movie actually explores the inner demons of Bruce Wayne which drive him to dress up like a bat and fight crime. With the exception of the Spider-Man films, no other superhero movie has spent as much time exploring the inner man as Batman Begins did. Fortunately, Batman Begins is not all character study, as it also features some of the best action scenes ever seen in a superhero movie.

II. Spider-Man 2: Like its predecessor (and Batman Begins, for that matter), Spider-Man II explores the inner demons of Peter Parker. Where Spider-Man II goes even further is that it features what may be the greatest portrayl of a supervillain on film. Played by Alfred Molina, Dr. Octopus is a complex, sophisticated character. Indeed, he becomes a supervillain not by choice, but by accident, making him an altogether tragic character. Between the potrayal of Peter Parker and the portrayal of Dr. Octopus, Spider-Man 2 is lifted above the average superhero film.

III. Spider-Man: Moreso than any superhero movie made before it, Spider-Man explored the man behind the mask. In fact, Spider-Man does not even appear for nearly forty minutes into the film! The movie is as much about the impact (both positive and negative) Peter Parker's super powers have on his life as it is about fighting the Green Goblin. In the end, Peter Parker as he is portrayed in Spider-Man is the most complex superhero to appear on screen until the release of Batman Begins. The movie only has two weaknesses, in my humble opinion. First, the Green Goblin is not nearly as well developed as he should be. The character lacks much of the depth that he had in the comic books. Second, why did they choose to use Mary Jane Watson instead of Gwen Stacy>?! To me this would be like doing a Superman movie where the love interest is Lana Lang rather than Lois Lane....

IV. X-2: X-Men United: Like the films in the Spider-Man franchise, this is another case where the sequel was better than the original. Part of what is so impresive about this movie is that it features an ensemble of characters while at the same time insuring all of them are three dimensional. Despite whatever super powers they might have, each one of the X-Men are fully realised characters who could concievably exist. Beyond the fact that the movie does quite well in its portrayls of the characters, it is among the best movies at capturing the look and feel of comic books on film. There is plenty of action to be had, including the best fight scene Woverine has had so far in the series. And I must say that I am impressed with the way they handled Nightcrawler's powers.

V. Superman II: For me, Superman II was the first superhero movie to capture the look and feel of comic books on film. Indeed, the knockdown, dragout fight between Superman and his Kryptonian opponents (General Zod, Ursa, and Non) is one of the best superhero battles ever filmed. It could have been ripped straight from the pages of any comic book. Of course, this is not to say that Superman II is all comic book action. One of the attractions of the film is the relationship between Clark Kent and Lois Lane, finally allowed to develop after forty years of flirting. For me Superman II is a movie that is still charming 25 years after its release.

Well, those are what I consider the five greatest superhero films of all time. This summer has seen the release of X-Men III and will see the release of Superman Returns. It will be interesting to see if those films measure up to these.

Friday, June 2, 2006

Robert Sterling R.I.P.

Actor Robert Sterling, best known for his roles in the TV series Topper and such movies as Show Boat and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, died Tuesday at age 88.

Sterling was born William Sterling Hart in New Castle, Pennsylvania. He attended the University of Pittsburgh. Before taking up acting, he had worked as a clothing salesman. In 1939 he signed a contract with Columbia Pictures. He took the stage name "Robert Sterling" to keep from being confused with silent Western star William S. Hart. At Columbia his film career was lacklustre at best; Sterling appeared only in a few small parts in even smaller films.

Fortunately, in 1941 he was signed to MGM as a possible replacement for Robert Taylor, who had entered the U. S. Navy. Although Sterling was usually not the leading man, he did play supporting roles in several major feature films. He appeared in such films as Two Faced Woman, Somewhere I'll Find You, Show Boat, and The Sundowners.

Sterling also appeared on the Broadway stage. He appeared in the play Gramercy Ghost in 1951 and Roman Candle in 1960. It was through the former that he met his wife, actress Anne Jeffreys, who was playing in Kiss Me Kate just across the street. Sterling and Jeffreys started a stage act not long after their marriage, which led to the two of them being cast as George and Marion Kerby, the two fun loving ghosts who haunted the title character in the classic TV series Topper (based on the novel by Thorne Smith, which also inspired three classic films made in the late Thirties and early Forties). Topper ran from 1953 to 1956, with a healthy afterlife in reruns following its network run. Sterling and Jeffreys later appeared in their own short lived TV series, Love That Jill. Without his wife, Sterling starred in another short lived series, Ichabod and Me.

With the exception of the films Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and Global Affair, most of Sterling's work was in television. He guest starred on many shows, among them The Loretta Young Show, Wagon Train, The Twilight Zone, and Murder, She Wrote.

I always liked Robert Sterling. He was a talented actor with a gift for comedy. Indeed, it must be pointed out that in Topper he stepped into a role originally played by Cary Grant (who portrayed George Kerby in the 1937 feature film Topper) and nearly matched Grant in the role. It is sad that he was generally cast in secondary roles and never saw much success (beyond Topper) on television. He not only had the looks of a leading man, but he also had the talent. I rather suspect that with the proper vehicle, he could have had a very successful career.

Thursday, June 1, 2006

Oasis Produced the Greatest Album of All Time?!

The annual publication, British Hit Singles & Albums, recently conducted a vote for the greatest albums of all time. Individuals could vote for up to 10 albums. Around 40,000 people voted, with 95% of the votes coming from the United Kingdom.

Quite frankly, I am a bit shocked at the results. Oasis' debut album, Definite Maybe, was voted the greatest album of all time. It beat out The Beatles' Revolver, which came in at #2, and The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which came in at #3. The rest of the top ten was filled out by: Radiohead's OK Computer at #4; Oasis' (What's the Story)Morning Glory? at #5; Nirvana's Nevermind at #6; The Stone Roses' self titlted album at #7; Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon at #8; The Smiths' The Queen is Dead at #9; and Radiohead's The Bends at #10.

As I said above, I am a bit shocked at the results. It is extremely difficult for me to see how anyone could honestly believe that Definite Maybe by Oasis is a greater album than either Revovler (my pick for the greatest album of all time) or Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles. These two albums transformed rock music in the way that no other ablums have before or since. Quite simply, they were revolutionary. While I love Oasis and Definite Maybe is their best album, I am not sure that I would even rank it in the top ten, let alone name it the greatest album of all time. As to the rest of the top ten, I would have ranked Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd a good deal higher--at #3, right behind Revolver and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. OK Computer by Radiohead probably would make my top ten, although I would probably rank it quite a bit lower. (What's the Story)Morning Glory? by Oasis, Nevermind by Nirvana, and The Queen is Dead by The Smiths would not have even made my top ten. The Stone Roses would not even have made my top one hundred...

Indeed, I am amazed that some of these albums made British Hit Singles & Albums's top ten greatest albums of all time when other classic rock albums did not. In my humble opinion Days of Future Past by The Moody Blues is the greatest concept album ever made besides Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Besides Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd, I would include A Night at the Opera by Queen, Who's Next by The Who, Ziggy Stardust & the Spiders of Mars by David Bowie, and Led Zeppelin IV as the seminal albums of the Seventies. Looking back to the days of Swinging London, Aftermath stands out in my mind as the greatest album made by The Rolling Stones and one of the greastest albums of all time. It is hard for me to understand how these albums did not make the top ten when they obviously seem superior to many of the albums that did.

While I do have some very big complaints with the results of this vote, I guess I should be thankful that it was not worse. With the exception of The Stone Roses, I like every album in the top ten. I could see Thriller by Michael Jackson or Madonna's debut album making some people's lists....

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Actor Paul Gleason Dead

Actor Paul Gleason, best known as Principal Richard Vernon in The Breakfast Club, died Saturday from a rare form of lung cancer. He was 67 years old.

Gleason had started out as an athlete. He played football for Florida State University. After he graduated he played minor league baseball. When it came to acting, Gleason studied at the Actors Studio under the legendary Lee Strasberg. He made his first appearance on film in 1965 in a bit part in Winter A Go-Go. His first appearance on television was a guest appearance on The Green Hornet. Gleason would go on to appear in such films as Doc Savage: the Man of Bronze, Arthur, Die Hard, and Trading Places. He made guest appearances on such series as Mission: Impossible, Adam 12, Beauty and the Beast, Seinfeld, amd NewsRadio. He played Dr. David Thornton on All My Children from 1976 to 1978.

Most people probably remember him as the principal from The Breakfast Club. Never having cared for that movie, I prefer to remember Gleason as Maj. Thomas J. 'Long Tom' Roberts from Doc Savage: the Man of Bronze and from his many guest appearances. While Gleason played a good many jerks in his films, he was a talented character actor capable of playing many different roles. The abrasive deputy chief of police from Die Hard is an example of one of the many jerks he played, but he also played Long Tom from Doc Savage: the Man of Bronze, the dour electrical engineer among Doc's cohorts. In many ways it is sad that he was typecast in roles similar to those that he played in The Breakfast Club and Die Hard, as he was capable of much more.