Sunday, February 10, 2013

Sunday Best: Directors of All Time #11 - Richard Donner

photo by Tostle14

-Superman II
-The Goonies
-The Omen
-Lethal Weapon

-Lethal Weapon 2
-Lethal Weapon 3
-Lethal Weapon 4
-Conspiracy Theory


Richard Donner made his bones doing a lot of television work.  He spent years working in serialized storytelling until he was given his first major feature: The Omen.  Now I do not like The Omen.  It is not a movie that I enjoy.  But it is so horribly effective.  In the beginning when he juxtaposes the idyllic children's party with the insane suicide, it not only creates a sense of fear, but you are very much unnerved.  You feel as though the moorings of experience are thrown off.  He knew exactly when to use and not use the music to create maximum fright.  And that last shot, to this day, creeps me out.

And while his great action opera, the Lethal Weapon series, has its flaws, its impact on the genre was huge.  Pierce Brosnon once cited Gibson's performance as Martin Riggs as a revolution in action heroes because he was so tortured and vulnerable while at the same time being stoic and ruthless.  Donner was smart enough to know that the key to the series success was in cultivating the fantastic chemistry between Gibson and Glover.  And as the series progressed, he made others like Joe Pesci and Rene Russo feel like additions to a family.  All the while he fills he shots with iconic moments.  Who else got excited when Glover did his neck role after the villain cited diplomatic immunity in Lethal Weapon 2?

And that points to one of Donner's key gifts.  He picks actors he can trust to carry the story.  Take his holiday classic Scrooged.  The original Dickens tale has been done to death.  And yet Donner built his movie around the comedic genius of Bill Murray and then trusted the actor to carry the final monologue.  That last speech by Murray is essential to making that movie work and if it feels at all forced or faked, the film collapses.  Donner instead gets one of my favorite Bill Murray performances because it is funny and moving and sincere while keeping in rhythm with his manic energy.

Another aspect to Donner's movies is that they tend to be a great deal of fun.  Maverick is a movie I've watched over and over again.  It is a little too long, but the parts that are good are so enjoyable that you forget the length.  Ladyhawke is an exciting medieval adventure with synthesizer soundtrack.  And of course The Goonies is a perfect kid adventure movie.  There just enough danger to keep you on the edge of your seat but not too much violence as to be repulsive.  All the while he fills you with a sense of child-like wonder.

It is that wonder that marks his greatest film: Superman.  There were many ways Donner could have played the Man of Steel.  The latest incarnation had been the cheesy television series staring George Reeves.  Instead, he cast Christopher Reeve as the Last Son of Krypton.  People may not remember that not only was Reeve was a relative unknown, but he was scrawny.  Donner said he could have chosen someone who looked like Superman and hoped he could act or chosen a great actor and train them to bulk up.  He chose a great actor in Christopher Reeve.

And he approached Superman as if he were telling the mythic story of an ancient god.  You felt the history and power of Krypton before it exploded, you experienced the beauty of the Kansas farmlands that shaped the contours of Clark's soul.  And he almost everything about his journey seriously.  The tag line to the film is important: "You will believe a man can fly."  While the special effects are dated, Donner and Reeve made you believe that he was flying.  They committed to making you feel it.  The movie is pure magic.  And having watched the "Donner Cut" of Superman II, and can see more of the same in the sequel.

Very simply, Richard Donner makes great movies.

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