The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened? (2015)

2015 #95
Jon Schnepp | 104 mins | download (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | *

Jon Schnepp’s widely-reviewed documentary about the batshit-crazy Nic Cage-starring Tim Burton-directed Superman movie that almost happened in 1999. If all you’ve seen are the photos of a stoned-looking Cage in a light-up abomination of a Superman costume that leaked onto the internet a few years ago, prepare to be amazed. Indeed, those infamous photos and footage are an aberration that this documentary explains.

Schnepp guides us neatly through the film’s protracted development, from the early script stages — initially penned by Kevin Smith — right up to costume fittings and special effects tests. It’s remarkable how late in the day the film was canned. A wide array of interviewees means the documentary offers a genuine insight into the entire process, with the likes of screenwriters and concept artists offering details on specific elements, to producer Jon Peters (certainly a ‘character’) and director Tim Burton sharing more of an overview of the project. Indeed, the only significant absentee is Cage.

Some have said Schnepp puts himself in the film too much. He’s a long, long way from the worst example of a documentary maker intruding too heavily, in my opinion, though it’s true that at times he could pull it back a bit. A sequence where someone takes a phone call mid-interview while Schnepp patiently has a drink is presumably supposed to be some kind of comedic interlude, but it’s obviously an inside joke because it’s a narrative-interrupting pause with no worthwhile effect. Thankfully, such indulgences are few and far between.

There seem to be an increasing number of “making-of documentaries about films that didn’t get made”, to the extent where it’s almost turning into a sub-genre. The highly-praised Jodorowsky’s Dune is a fixture of my “must watch soon” list, while one looking into George “Mad Max” Miller’s very-nearly-happened Justice League movie is in the works. Schnepp has said that while producing The Death of “Superman Lives” he also uncovered information on a variety of other well-known didn’t-happen superhero movies (like J.J. Abrams’ Superman: Flyby, Wolfgang Petersen’s Batman vs Superman, and Darren Aronofksy’s Batman: Year One) and is considering turning those stories into a TV series. I hope he does.

No one outright claims Superman Lives would have been a huge success, as you might expect they would (especially Peters). Instead, as the documentary comes to a close, an interesting consensus emerges from its contributors: that Superman Lives would have been either a completely revolutionary hit or a critical and commercial bomb, but, either way, it would certainly have been interesting. Although this documentary is only really worthwhile for anyone already intrigued by the project or fans of behind-the-scenes-of-blockbusters tales, it’s hard to disagree with that opinion.

4 out of 5

The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened? is available to purchase in a variety of digital packages, as well as on DVD and Blu-ray, from tdoslwh.com.

* There are no certificates because it’s not officially been released in the UK and it’s “not rated” in the US. If you’re bothered, it would probably be a 15 / R for language. ^

Snake Eyes (1998)

2010 #86
Brian De Palma | 94 mins | TV (HD) | 15 / R

Kick-Ass, Knowing, National Treasure 2, Matchstick Men, now Snake Eyes — I feel like I’m seeing a lot of Nicolas Cage of late. (To be precise, it’s five films in as many months.) It’s not a conspiracy, I assure you, just an almighty coincidence.

Unlike in Snake Eyes, in which it’s no coincidence that a top boxer throws a fight seconds before the US Secretary of Defense is assassinated right behind dirty cop Rick Santoro (Cage), all in a lovely 12-minute opening take. And there’s plenty more to it than that, but I wanted the sentence to be halfway legible. Who did it? Why? How’s it all connected? Who’s involved? Such are the questions to be answered in the ensuing near-real-time neo-noir.

Let’s start with the opening take. It’s a fake (there are eight cuts), which is pretty obvious, but it’s still a nifty way of starting the film. As well as being the kind of thing I always like to see, it sets up nearly everything we need to know for the rest of the film. Almost every element of the conspiracy is tucked away in there somewhere, from the blatantly obvious to the tiniest detail we won’t even notice. It’s just one of many long takes director Brian De Palma deploys throughout the film, including one that sails over various hotel rooms for no reason other than it looks pretty cool. Which is fine — there’s nothing wrong with looking cool, especially in a crime thriller film set in an Atlantic City casino.

Another thing I always like is real-time. I don’t know why, but there’s something pleasing about a story that unfurls in exactly the time it takes to tell it, that doesn’t skip over characters getting places or cheat our sense of relative time for a nifty editing-based twist (which I’m not saying can’t work — just look at Silence of the Lambs — but there’s also a skill in avoiding it). Perhaps there’s just a thrill in the logistical challenge of making the concept — which is highly unnatural to film and TV — work. The first season of 24 paid much attention to it, to good effect; later seasons didn’t and, in my opinion, suffered. Johnny Depp-starer Nick of Time also used it, though I can’t remember much about that except it was total rubbish. Snake Eyes doesn’t stick to its real-time as rigidly as 24, but it was good enough to satiate me. By the time it begins to deviate significantly from the concept, the story’s got so involving that it no longer matters.

And another thing I always like is a bit of noir. Snake Eyes fits the bill, with ‘heroic’ characters of questionable morality, voluptuous femme fatales, vicious villains, double dealings, punch-ups in shadowy alleys, and dozens of other generic signifiers that I’ll leave it for you to discover and/or remember. I was rather surprised to discover it wasn’t on Wikipedia’s era-encompassing list of film noir (until I added it): I’m not always that good at identifying what counts as post/neo-noir (one might ask “who is?” considering the genre’s broad/nonexistent definition), but I’d say Snake Eyes is pretty much undoubtable in its noir-ness.

Based on IMDb scores and Rotten Tomatoes ratings and whatnot, it seems Snake Eyes isn’t very well regarded. Honestly, I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s too stylised for some tastes — not everyone will like the long takes, the flashbacks, the point-of-view shots, the split screen, or Cage’s usual OTT performance — but I enjoy all of these things when used well, and here they are. Cage, for instance, isn’t permanently OTT, finding the character’s more realistic side when called upon; his style doesn’t always work, this is certainly true, but here it’s a match.

If there’s one significant flaw, it’s that the ending is too much based on convenience and coincidence; and someone in the editing room should’ve paid more attention to removing all references to the original, deleted ending in which the casino got flooded. I have no idea why that was removed — maybe someone thought it was a bit ludicrous. But it sounds more satisfying than what was included, which, as noted, relies on a handy spot of coincidence and at least one action that seems out of character. I can forgive it though, because I liked everything else. And the post-climax montage is a suitably downbeat ending to our hero’s story — another noir trait there.

Snake Eyes certainly isn’t perfect — as well as the above, I’m sure some take issue with its occasionally implausible conspiracy plotting — but if one accepts that it’s set in a slightly more noir-ish world than our own, and that half the fun is to be had from De Palma’s visual trickery, I think there’s a lot to like. And like it I did.

4 out of 5

Snake Eyes is on BBC One tonight, Sunday 26th April 2015, at 11:35pm.

Matchstick Men (2003)

2010 #84
Ridley Scott | 111 mins | TV (HD) | 12 / PG-13

Matchstick Men ends with a twist. One of those great big changes-everything-you’ve-just-seen numbers that have a habit of making a film notorious. Yet I’m almost loath to mention it, because I’ve never read a review, preview, summary or what-have-you of the film that mentions there’s a twist. Maybe I’ve just been reading the wrong pieces; maybe no one cares; maybe they’re all just playing along trying to keep it secret. But not me, because I bloody hated it.

The twist, that is. The rest of the film is pretty good, but the twist undermines it — and not just because I knew it was coming. I don’t wish to sound boastful, but I knew it was coming before I even started watching, guessed from the little I did know about the film from one or two reviews and (sort-of-spoiler warning!) that they’d cast a 24-year-old as a 14-year-old. I spent the whole film hoping that my predicted twist wouldn’t come to pass, but, with crushing inevitability, it did. I didn’t guess every element of it before I began, though I picked up most as the film went along, and those that I didn’t get weren’t surprising either.

Is it easily guessable? I don’t know. It was to me. Perhaps I’ve seen too many heist-type movies or TV shows (watching several seasons of Hustle covers that one easily), or perhaps just too many films with twists, or perhaps it’s just my writer’s brain at work — the latter does have a tendency to make many films guessable. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter, because a guessable twist can still work. This one doesn’t.

Twists are fine. Twists can be great. As I said, you can guess a twist is coming and it can still work. A really good twist works even when you know for certain it’s coming; its existence raises what you’ve seen, makes it all work even on repeated viewings when the element of surprise is obviously gone. Matchstick Men doesn’t have that kind of twist. It has the kind of twist that undermines everything you’ve just seen. Not because it’s illogical — it isn’t in the slightest — but because it tramples over the film’s emotional resonance, in my opinion.

I don’t want to give away the twist here because, even if it’s a rubbish one, that’s a bit unfair on the film. I’d encourage you to watch it anyway and see what you think. And there are reasons to watch it anyway, even if some of the best ones are at least partially tossed away at the end.

Good things, then. The performances. Nic Cage can be awfully mannered and OTT quite often, but here it works. His character is inherently implausible — an obsessive-compulsive agoraphobe who’s also a con artist — but he plays it well, replete with tics and habits. It could easily be a caricature or spoof of the afflictions, and at times it threatens to tip the balance — when we see him obsessively cleaning to a jaunty “isn’t this funny” score, for instance — but the line is successfully trod most of the time.

Alison Lohman is also exceptionally good as a 14-year-old girl. It took a scene or two to convince me, but after that I was plenty on board with it. It occasionally takes some effort to remind yourself she was 24. As the third lead, Sam Rockwell plays a typical Sam Rockwell part. He does it very well, naturally, and there’s nothing to fault him on, but he’s been better elsewhere. The rest of the cast are absolutely fine but not exactly called on much — this is Cage’s film, and to a lesser extent Lohman’s. They have the emotional journey, the film’s heart-and-soul around its long(-ish) con ‘plot’ (which could just be lifted from any episode of Hustle… except it’s not even that complex).

It’s also, as you may have noticed, A Ridley Scott Film. It doesn’t feel like one. It has a ’00s-US-indie aesthetic in every regard and consequently feels like the work of a first-or-second-time young-ish director. Perhaps this is to Scott’s credit, but on the downside it lacks any distinctive qualities. I suppose it’s not fully at odds with the rest of his career — even when you try to pick a genre Scott’s known for, you often find only two or three examples of it in his CV; and there are several genres you can do it with — but if you hadn’t told me it was a Ridley Scott film I’d never have guessed, and I’d wager no one else would either.

Matchstick Men was a lot better than I’d expected, because most of the coverage I remember shoved it aside as a middle-of-the-road side project for Scott. It’s definitely better than that, if still not the “sweep the Oscars” success Ebert seems to think. But I wish they’d stuck with the decision to cut out the twist, not because I object to how it leaves our hero (which was the reasoning, apparently), but because it undercuts an awful lot of what’s good in the film and consequently left a bad taste in my mouth, all for the sake of some aren’t-we-clever-ness.

Stop the film about when Roy wakes up in a hospital bed. Imagine they got away with it and he went to live happily with his daughter. It’s not just a nicer ending, it’s a more whole one too. And then imagine that film on my end-of-year Top 10, because this one won’t be.

4 out of 5

Bringing Out the Dead (1999)

2007 #114
Martin Scorsese | 116 mins | DVD | 18 / R

Bringing Out the DeadIt’s hard to know what to make of this, because by the end it all seems a little pointless. The storyline, which follows Nicolas Cage’s paramedic across three nights in New York, is a mixture of short episodic medical incidents with longer threads that continue throughout. These connect and fall apart, feeling as episodic as the rest, and most of them don’t really lead anywhere.

Perhaps the best description is that it’s a collection of subplots in search of proper story. There are some decent scenes and good shots, but the film doesn’t seem to have anything to say, and it doesn’t end so much as simply fade to black when it runs out of things to do.

3 out of 5