MOVIE REVIEW - Lady in the Water
Full review behind the jump
Lady in the Water
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Writer: M. Night Shyamalan
Producers: Sam Mercer, M. Night Shyamalan
Stars: Paul Giamatti, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jeffrey Wright, Bob Balaban, Sarita Choudhury, Cindy Cheung, M. Night Shyamalan, Freddy Rodríguez, Bill Irwin, Mary Beth Hurt
Lady in the Water self-identifies as a bedtime story. My father told me bedtime stories, and the joy of them was that anything could happen. Nothing was out of bounds, nothing against the rules, because he was making it up as he went and could always come up with some new purpose behind any inconsistencies. And a toddler doesn’t question what Daddy says. Daddy is never wrong. I’m guessing from this film that M. Night Shyamalan wishes the moviegoing public would accord him the same worship.
I’ve been willing to trumpet his real and specific talents to the world since his splash with The Sixth Sense – that I think he has an intuitive gift for pacing and atmosphere when he’s behind the camera, and that he knows how to get the most from his creative collaborators. Actors come off well in his movies. They are impeccably photographed and given unique and evocative musical scores. It makes his apparent blind spot about his own slapdash inadequacies as a writer all the more startling – after this and The Village I find myself wondering if he deliberately writes worse and worse stories as a masochistic filmmaking challenge: how long can he shoot this garbage compellingly?
Like many of Shyamalan’s stories, it’s about the power of belief, and every time we come around to believing something we see, he punishes us for it. He does this by either by re-defining it and mocking us for not having the information he just made up, or by making the thing we are to believe in gallingly silly.
It’s impossible for me to judge which information, if any, he would rather I keep secret, and I usually at least attempt to respect the filmmaker in this regard. You’d like that to be a two-way street, but after seeing what happens to the humorless fussbudget of a film critic (Bob Balaban) Shyamalan cheekily inserts into the narrative, I guess that I’m going to have to be the grown-up in this relationship.
I can’t avoid setting up some context, though, so I’m issuing a general spoiler warning – if you truly intend to see this movie and will not be persuaded against it, what novelty the movie might hold could be tainted by what you’ll read below.
As the movie opens we are told that there is a “Blue World” within the waters of the Earth and that it’s inhabited by The Narfs, and that when The Narfs and the land-dwelling humans interacted there was peace and harmony on the Earth. But then sinful ol’ man moved inland and started making with the greed and the warmongering and lost touch. And now, in what is presumably our darkest hour, the Narfs are sending forth envoys in an attempt to fulfill a prophecy about changing the world.
This all is supposed to happen in Cleveland Heep’s pool. Heep (Paul Giamatti, who, it must be said, is excellent in his attempts to put this mess over) is the superintendent of an apartment complex called “The Cove”. He’s a stuttering misfit but also a quiet and caring man when it comes to the needs of his tenants. He has worked himself into a small, sad rut he considers comfortable, at least until the arrival of The Narf (Bryce Dallas Howard).
She calls herself “Story”, has an ethereal paleness and mysterious scratches on her legs. She’s not aloud to talk about where she came from, except when she does, nor can she be specific about her mission, except when she is. Why? The movie could save itself time if, whenever a character asked why, Shyamalan just popped up with “because I said so”. It would be a simple matter, he’s already gone to the trouble of casting himself in a major role in the movie. He plays a writer who’s been gazing out a little window setting his thoughts and musings down in book form, and Story tells him this book will someday Inspire the Great Leaders of the Future.
I’m going to try and leave that one alone, but he is one of the people Story is fated to meet; average, lower-income people with no idea the great destiny they will contribute to, and Heep must help her find them among his tenants. There’s also a threat lurking outside, a “Scrunt” which stalks Narfs who leave the Blue World. The Scrunt is a wolf-like creature who can hide in the ground because his fur is indistinguishable from grass, which coins a new Zen question: If a wolf made of grass poops on the lawn, does it smell?
Eventually most of the community becomes involved in the quest to deliver Story to the Great Eagle, and the movie is tactful enough to skip Heep explaining the whole mythology to one resident after another. But in the process we skip something else: Not once in this movie does anyone question that this troubled naked woman is, in actual fact, a mystical oracle of a better tomorrow described in an old fairy tale that only the crazy woman upstairs (June Kyoto Lu) knows. And that even the most minor detail of her story, which she defiantly shares in bits and pieces, only what will be useful to the plot at the moment, is going to come literally true. Perhaps that’s the magic spell the movie hopes to weave, but if you put twenty people in a room and told them to be very afraid of “The Scrunt”, can you tell me not one would even crack a grin?
It’s worth saying that the movie manages to weave a lovely color scheme into the design of the apartment complex, and Shyamalan can still work a couple of old-fashioned “Tingler” jump in your seat moments, usually involving lawn sprinklers that turn on Very Loudly All of a Sudden. The actors, as is custom, do their sincere best. Once in awhile they even manage to break through the harebrained fantasy and touch us with something that feels genuine – like a man finally releasing the grief of his lost family.
But I can’t help but come back to what’s represented by the character Shyamalan plays and how it informs this movie’s overall thrust. It’s a celebration of stubborn whimsy – the suggestion that whatever Beautiful Thought floats into his cerebrum is somehow imbued with greater purity and magic than what we clumsy mortals do with our “reasoning” and “curiosity” and “going outside and getting a job”. Lady in the Water takes the air of a defiant delusion – Shyamalan will not have us examining or questioning it, and he’ll sic a Scrunt on us if we disobey. It’s not messianic but when you’ve included a martyrdom fantasy you’re certainly in the zip code.
And on the most fundamental level the movie fails, because I just don’t care. Every new layer of prophecy simply hardens my attitude – that I couldn’t give a flying Narf who the Healer actually is, or the Guardian, or why the Tartutics haven’t shown up yet. And if you understand that sentence, it means you saw the movie. Shame on you.
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More dignified review coming later, I promise
So I guess they called it Lady in the Water because the marketing people were looking for something classier than Crap in a Pool.
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And the freeways sucked. But that goes without saying.
Los Angeles was in a mood last night. Something angry and weird was crackling through the air. As I crawled along Hollywood Boulevard, choke-clogged with cruisers and travelers gawking for a parking space, I could sense something bottled up, something dangerous. Wind flushed through in quick whips, and far off to the South orange lightning forked down. And none of it took any of the edge off the heat – 90’s at the beach (so full the cops closed the main parking lot and waved people away), 100’s inland, 115 in the Valley.Out in front of the gelato shop which sells pure contentment by cup or cone, two cops interrogated a young man, and didn’t like his answers. They shoved him into a wall and cuffed him – I thought they took extra care to see that his head hit the wall along with the rest of him. Tourists were videotaping.Over in the courtyard of the Chinese, you usually see only one of each costumed character around to pose for pictures. Professional courtesy. But last night, two Michael Jackson-s occupied the same ground, and neither would cede. A feverish dance-off ensued.
Emergency vehicles raced by every few minutes.
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Just so’s you know’s I care, Jimmy, I did dutifully watch a dreadful horror movie the other night, hoping to bring you another snark-a-licious edition of Hurts So Good. Sadly, the movie – 1989’s The Immortalizer, just didn’t sufficiently meet my amorphous definition of slasher goodness.
The plot was about a group of teenagers being kidnapped by a mad scientist who transplants the brains of rich old people into their firm sexy bodies, and that really does sound ideal. But the teens are all kidnapped and anesthetized in the first five minutes, so there’s no time for the drinking, pot-smoking and fornicating that so richly earns them their horrible fates. The gore is confined mostly to the operating table, so you don’t get those shock makeup-assisted deaths that are so essential, and for a movie with such a fetishistic plot and a lead role for Playboy Playmate Rebekka Armstrong there’s startlingly little nudity.
There’s attributes to note. Clarke Lindsley gives a perversely homely I’m-just-evil-for-the-hell-of-it performance as the mad scientist’s right hand man, he has an accomplished sinister laugh and he uses it every chance he gets, sometimes stopping three or four times to chuckle in a single line of dialogue, then chuckling again afterwards, as if fondly remembering how well he just laughed. And it is pretty damned funny how the small suburban neighborhood this takes place in has exactly one police officer.
But its attempts at self-conscious cult-film oddness all go splat, and the hero is just plain annoying, constantly getting himself trapped or captured or overpowered by 60 year-old doctors. The movie is more about his alternately breaking into and out of the same suburban house over and over again when you really want it to be focused on the heartless slaughter of the young. About the most heroic thing he does is punch a middle-aged woman in the face, and it doesn’t even put her down for the count. Oh, for the trivia-minded, she’s played by Melody Patterson, Wrangler Jane from F-Troop, and she’s maliciously-MILF-y in her way.
And at the end he looks directly at the camera and screams “You don’t get it! You just don’t get it!” and I thought that if Mystery Science Theatre 3000 were still around, that would be the clip they tack on after the end credits. And really, the most I got out of this movie was really wishing that show were still around. The reason this post didn’t go up two hours ago is that it sent me off on some nostalgic web-surfing.
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MOVIE REVIEW - A Scanner Darkly
Full review behind the jumpA Scanner Darkly
Director: Richard Linklater
Writers: Richard Linklater, based on the novel by Philip K. Dick
Producers: Tommy Pallotta, Jonah Smith, Erwin Stoff, Anne Walker-McBay, Palmer West
Stars: Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Winona Ryder, Woody Harrelson, Rory Cochrane, Chamblee Ferguson, Angela Rawna
Ultimately we don’t want dreams to make total sense, we want the meaning just slipping off the tips of our fingers. A Scanner Darkly is Richard Linklater’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s bleak sci-fi novel about the tragic waste of drug addiction, and for as long as it possibly can it maintains the character of a dream, floating the audience in uncertainty and unease.
That is the mood of Robert Arctor (Keanu Reeves), through whose unreliable eyes we see the story, but because he’s in the grip of a condition that does not improve, eventually we must break from him and see things more clearly than he can. I wonder if you’ll be upset to find out what is actually going on, or more so that it’s explained in such a flat vanilla scene of dialogue. Because when Linklater is getting you lost, it’s damned compelling stuff even while it’s bleak, paranoid, often darkly funny but never far from mournful. Once you’ve found the plot, all that’s left for you to see is the sadness.
Dick didn’t intend to spare us – the story was his response to the real death and decay he saw happening around him, and Linklater even includes Dick’s simple epilogue: a list of friends he lost. For an audience it replicates both the interior and exterior effects of a drug trip, marrying headspinning visuals with the most strangling banalities.
The setting is Anaheim and the surrounding communities of Orange County a few years into the future; the film sees it as a barren place where the spark of life has been paved over – even the fast food joints have despairing names like “General Burger” and “Taco Hole”. It’s estimated some 20 percent of the population is now addicted to Substance D: the film never gets into what effect Substance D has that makes people want to take it. Maybe it’s enough that it does something.
It’s dissolving the brains of a generation, and the only hope offered is a mysterious but very polished clinic/ministry/sanitarium called New Path. How they managed to spring so fully-formed into being so quickly after the rise of Substance D is the cause of much speculation.
The police combat this drug epidemic – which induces paranoia and hallucinations – with some rather paranoid and hallucinatory methods of their own. Undercover detectives infiltrate drug dens with such secrecy that headquarters doesn’t even know their names or faces: when at the office they wear “scramble suits” which turn their visage into an ever-shifting blur of faces and bodies. Arctor is one such detective who lands in the awkward position of, in essence, investigating himself. And he’s not sure that he doesn’t merit investigating. These things happen on Substance D.
He lives in a ramshackle house with the wooly-headed Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson) and the conspiracy theorist James Barris, played by Robert Downey, Jr. with an intensity of focus that suggests he may be tapping into personal baggage. They spend their days looking for the next score, bickering, getting trapped in the minutiae of a life they’re losing the tools to cope with, wondering how they might, in theory, have sex with their drug connection Donna Hawthorne (Winona Ryder) and observing with some interest each others’ symptoms of decreased mental faculties. I’ve always thought that the anti-drug ads which show what a garble-spouting idiot you become under the influence are far more effective than the authoritarian “Just Say No” routine – A Scanner Darkly performs a similar public service.
I haven’t mentioned the animation – as with his film Waking Life the movie was first shot in live action, and then the images were drawn over in eye-popping colors. This allows for subtle emphasis in facial expressions, and you can see the planes of the background bend and shift in disorienting ways. It also makes it a simpler matter to cohesively present a man thinking he’s covered in bugs.
Some actors thrive under this method while others don’t. Reeves’ default mode of breezy non-comprehension (with an added dash of ennui) works mostly as an effective grounding wire which Harrelson and Downey can spark off of – Downey in particular charts a visible path for us through a very degenerate brain, one that can still produce streams of verbosity even if the content itself is losing coherence.
In structure the piece moves more like a short story. It lavishes time on sharply-observed anecdotal moments – see the twisted and tenuous path of reasoning by which the house’s occupants conclude they are being spied on; the punchline is, of course, that they’re right. And it cuts off when in most movies you’d just be headed for the big climax where Our Heroes Take the Fight to the Enemy. A Scanner Darkly isn’t that kind of movie – whether you want to see it will hinge on whether or not you want to be in the company of this mood and this state of mind for 100 minutes. Richard Linklater and company, for better and for worse, evoke it well.
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A tale of spectacles
I was in 4th grade when faraway objects started looking blurry, and I started getting the headaches. My parents both wear glasses so it wasn’t surprising that I’d show a spot of the old myopia before long. I didn’t relish the thought – being the smart kid in class was bad enough, add a second pair of eyes on my face and I was really going to be asking for it.
My mother took me to an eye doctor named Dr. Poon. I’ll never forget Dr. Poon – not from him did I get the usual battery of “letter charts”, “eye tests” and other “science-based” hoogah-boogah. The most rigorous test I remember came when he asked me to lie on my back on the floor underneath a rubber ball he’d suspended from a string. He let the ball swing this way and that, asked me to track its movement with my eyes, and would throw math problems out for me to solve as I did it. Hell, I was nine and living in the suburbs of Cincinnati, as far as I knew this was the bleeding edge in optical research.
When all that was done he confronted my mother: “Your son’s vision is fine, Mrs. Thurkettle. You simply never taught him…how to see.”
My mother, kind and empathetic Christian woman that she is, immediately took that in the gut, feeling like she’d somehow failed me. Then some sense of reason took hold and she sought a second opinion. The next eye doctor had me read letter charts on a wall, shined a light into my retina, and said I needed glasses.
I tried, passively, to avoid my fate. When we went to the local LensCrafters I didn’t express enthusiasm for any of their frames. My mother picked one for me and asked me how I liked it, and I told a silly kid’s lie: “Well, they make me see better”, not knowing, of course, that sample frames don’t have prescription glass in them.
Finally I got some big clunky gray things that took up half of my face. My mother thought they matched the fashion of the time, and given that this was Cincinnati in 1986, she may well have been right. This was when the coolest car on our block was the neighbor’s IROC-Z.
By the time we moved to California I knew these things would not do. For awhile at my new middle school I would pocket my glasses after I got out the front door, which made bicycling to school a little hazardous. But I gave it up, because the nerds spotted me as one of their own anyway. I think there’s a pheromone involved.
But in the summer between middle school and high school I had a chance for salvation – I got fitted for contact lenses (aka life-saving nerd camouflage), and bought a new pair of back-up glasses to boot. The frames were on the $49 clearance rack at the optometrist’s, and in my 13-year-old mind they were about as cool as glasses could get, little oval John Lennon-looking things.
My eyes have changed a lot in the fifteen years since, which should be fairly obvious. My head has gotten bigger since then, too – from puberty, eating and my GIGANTIC EGO (rimshot!) But the glasses have stayed the same. Some stubbornness involved, I’m sure, some unwillingness to let go of the one satisfactory pair I ever found, but they were getting pretty run-down, and the headaches from wearing them for too long were getting pretty severe. But it never occurred to me to replace them at any time where I had a couple hundred dollars conveniently lying around. I was on the verge when I had health insurance, a fat savings account and a new eye doctor two years ago – then I got downsized and needed all my savings to, you know, eat.
So putting these babies out to pasture has been a long time coming:
Note the missing nose guard, the loving build-up of mysterious amber grime, the bent arms, the stripped color on the frames – these are the kind of glasses you see third world refugee children wearing with their Vanilla Ice T-shirts.
Finally this week, thanks to the convention job, the script option money and my old apartment being unusually generous with the return of my security deposit, I enjoyed a brief spell of fiscal solidity, and finally, finally I took advantage. So now I'm proud to present, the new model 2006 Nick, with extra Ironic Detachment and 20 percent more Dork!:Hey baby…want to see my Dawn of the Dead DVD?
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MOVIE REVIEW - Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
Full review behind the jump
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest
Director: Gore Verbinski
Writers: Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio, based on characters created by Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio and Stuart Beattie and Jay Wolpert, based on Walt Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean
Producer: Jerry Bruckheimer
Stars: Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Bill Nighy, Stellan Skarsgård, Jack Davenport, Tom Hollander, Jonathan Pryce, Lee Arenberg, Mackenzie Crook, Naomie Harris
The goal of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest is to inspire you to say: “well…ain’t that the damnedest thing you ever saw?” – and then to make you say it again five minutes later. This sequel to 2003’s hit Curse of the Black Pearl is easily one of the most expensive movies ever made, it stuffs the screen with spectacular vistas, constant action and creatures of the most grotesque and delightful oddness. After two-and-a-half-hours I could honestly say that it’s hard to imagine more swords clanged, sails unfurled and swashes buckled in the course of a single movie – excepting perhaps next year’s trilogy-capping episode, which per the scripture of the original Star Wars trilogy is set up in delirious cliff-hanging fashion.
But stumbling across the tightrope line between grand excess and wretched excess is not by itself a virtue – there’s a difference between a three course dinner invitation and being conscripted into a pie-eating contest. Every sequence is wrung for maximum seconds elapsed, every fondly remembered character moment or line of dialogue from the first film is studiously called back to, and so many of the outsized personalities fighting for your attention need their character arcs tended that you’ll be right in guessing that this movie is juggling more than it can handle even for its epic running time.
It’s at its best when it follows the mischievously flouncing manner of the drunken daredevil Captain Jack Sparrow, the original damndest thing you ever saw. Johnny Depp’s one-of-a-kind performance as the wild card in the first film effectively shanghaied it from the pretty heroics of its ingénues – and through him the movie strikes its tone of grand adventuring mixed with an intoxicating overdose of cheek.
As before the plot flows from Sparrow’s habit of keeping very bad company –in order to secure his beloved ship The Black Pearl, he sold his soul to the dark lord of the underwater underworld, Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), a ghostly pirate-squid who looks sort of like the very mean version of Futurama’s Dr. Zoidberg. Now Jones means to collect on the debt, and Sparrow is searching for a hidden chest whose contents he hopes will give him bargaining leverage.
Meanwhile, the planned wedded bliss of the lovely Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) and the even lovelier Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) is interrupted by arrest warrant, which is probably a bad omen for a marriage. The tyrannical new representative of the East India Trading Company, Mr. Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander), is asserting control over the Caribbean islands with a mix of thuggery, coercion and bureaucracy. Ostensibly our heroes are being arrested for their assistance in saving Captain Jack from arrest, but really Beckett wants something of Jack’s and is hoping to use Turner’s friendship with him to get it.
This sets in motion a cavalcade of perils involving soldiers, steep cliffs, cannibalistic natives, games of chance, Davy Jones’ undead crew (who look like their body parts have been replaced by decaying crustaceans, mollusks and the like) and The Kraken, a ship-snapping monster with skyscraper-high suctioned tentacles and an aura of fearsome majesty. The movie has wall-to-wall special effects but shows smarts in how it positions them – what’s most effective about The Kraken is not how quickly its tentacles can whip about, but how the movie has the restraint to depict the slow terror of those tentacles climbing out of the water and surrounding a very fragile boat.
The trend towards oversized action is so addicting that at one point two characters find themselves dueling while trying to keep their balance on top of a giant rolling mill wheel – and if they had the sense to think for two seconds they’d realize they could just jump off it and have a proper duel. For erring on the side of novelty and other reasons, the thrill rush isn’t matched by a true sense of unabashed wonder – Verbinski is a successfully slick and agile filmmaker but he lacks the heart of the Spielbergs and Peter Jacksons of the world. The movie is too arch and modern to trust itself with our heartstrings, it always wants to make sure you remember that it’s just playing at all this romance stuff. There’s a point in the movie where love strikes must unexpectedly and inconveniently – it feels forced upon the narrative until the actors save it later in a moment of choice which changes the direction of everything.
Bloom has a thankless job trying to make a straight arrow character compelling when surrounded by a platter of such gifted hams. Nighy fills the antagonist role Geoffrey Rush played with such crackling relish in the first film, he is an actor who can chart whole operas of emotion just by squinting, and he’s worthy to the task. Doofus sidekick pirates Pintel (Lee Arenberg) and Ragetti (Mackenzie Crook) continue enacting their cranky but co-dependent relationship with one another and are emerging as the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of the saga.
But once again Johnny Depp trumps them all as Captain Jack – who can exasperate you, steal from you, endanger you, lie to you and betray you constantly, and somehow along the way inspire you. It takes his reckless courage to charge into the weird and supernatural corners other sailors would just as well leave undisturbed, and his feeble sense for danger to disturb them thoroughly. Without a character like him, you’ve got no plot. Without Depp’s performance making the character pop to life, you’ve got no movie.
Captain Jack wouldn’t be Captain Jack without the id-fueled and rum-muddled dialogue provided by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio. These writers really ought to be better known outside of Hollywood than they are, since they’ve provided sparkle and wit to Fun For the Whole Family cinema like Aladdin, The Mask of Zorro and Shrek for a whole generation. There is talent involved in bringing fresh joy to broad material – they have it in spades.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest gives you a full bill for the price of your ticket. It entertains, to the point of exhaustion, yes, but to its credit, leaving you ready for more. It could be shorter, could be more stirring, the music could be better, but I guess you don’t try to micromanage a pirate.
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Well hello there, Stephen Hawking! You look like you could use a good rogering!
Last night I heard the above line delivered in a Cheerio! tone by none other than Miss Minnie Driver.
The wonderful thing about improv comedy is that the right artists can take you from a bare stage and, in two minutes’ flat, have you bearing witness to an act of leprechaun rape. That, sooner or later, pretty much every skit ends up being about deviant sex acts is simply, I assume, a side effect of what mood the average Los Angeles resident is in on a Friday night.
The resourceful Monkeygirl is on some sort of mailing list for hardcore Eddie Izzard fans – he often workshops new material at the Coronet Theatre in West Hollywood and sells tickets for a small crowd to test ideas on. Recently he’s been spending a lot of time with the sketch comedy/improv group The Groundlings and I guess he wanted to test out his new muscles.
So he brought four friends with him to the Coronet last night for about 90 minutes’ worth of One Word Improv – where the audience throws out any random word and the performers riff on it. Or not, sometimes they veer so quickly off on multiple tangents that the scene ceases to have anything to do with the original word – like how “smudge” somehow led to a scene of an opium-addled parliamentarian begging the Queen for permission to sell African pygmies for bread. You kind of had to be there – I could spend fat blocks of text trying to relate all the best moments to you, but without the context of manic invention there’s no way to guarantee you’d even see the humor. Suffice to say that, as with the last time I saw Eddie live, my face hurt by the end from laughing so much.
He recently shot a pilot for FX with Miss Driver – who’s looking rather sinewy these days, I thought she was hotter when she was curvier – so he must have convinced her to come out and play – and she was obviously out of her element sometimes but got into the spirit of it and made some inspired choices. There was another young actress there from the pilot, she didn’t fare nearly as well and I recognized rookie mistakes I used to make back in my improv class at Bradley (don’t shut out what the others are giving you, don’t dictate the scene, stop trying to think of funny things to say and just respond). The other two guys I didn’t recognize and I couldn’t hear their names over the applause, but they were clearly old hands at this so I’m guessing they were with the Groundlings.
It’s funny that it took this long for Monkeygirl and I to see Eddie together – because if you trace it all the way back, without him we never would have met. But that story’s for another time.
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MOVIE REVIEW - Superman Returns
Full review behind the jumpSuperman Returns
Director: Bryan Singer
Writers: Story by Bryan Singer and Michael Dougherty & Dan Harris, Screenplay by Michael Dougherty & Dan Harris, based on characters appearing in comic books published by DC Comics and “Superman” created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster
Producers: Jon Peters, Bryan Singer, Gilbert Adler
Stars: Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey, James Marsden, Parker Posey, Frank Langella, Sam Huntington, Tristan Lake Leabu
Filmmaker Bryan Singer even duplicates the style of the opening credits in Superman Returns, which accords Richard Donner’s 1978 feature the power of a generation-spanning franchise. Just as you know from frame one that you’re watching a Star Wars movie, so with this movie Singer wants you to keep its forbearers lovingly in mind. I admit to feeling a charge from seeing the old blue outline letters accompanied by John Williams’ stirring themes again.
And the movie is dedicated to the late Christopher Reeve and his wife Dana – it’s worth revisiting Reeve’s run in the blue tights to recall just how much of the movies’ success stemmed from his iconic, arrow-straight but somehow sly performance. He displayed confidence in the conceit of his character even as he invited the audience to share in its ridiculousness; he embodied Superman so well that audiences could never completely shake the image of him in the suit.
There’s such a thing as too much respect – one doesn’t solve the problem of having big shoes to fill by bronzing the shoes and displaying them for others to appreciate their bigness. If anyone could have taken the most famous name in caped hero-dom and managed to fuse a tribute with a reinvention, it would be Singer, whose two X-Men features displayed a canny sense for both the geek appeal and pop pathos required. He delivers a big movie here, with bold colors (d.p. Newton Thomas Sigel makes eye-popping use of a new digital camera) and audacious imagination. But he wants to do so much with this opportunity that in the end the attempt to serve two masters is too big for him. He loses his grip and the movie tumbles into the crowd with ideas still half-shaped and emotional depths unplumbed.
You get your leaping of tall buildings and outracing of speeding bullets, and flying and titanic feats of strength. And you get the X-Ray vision, though used in the most chaste capacity. But that’s what has always set Superman (Brandon Routh) apart: he is pure, total goodness. He’s even sort of a big dork about it, which makes him a tricky hero in a time of cynics and gussied-up vigilantes. His power, more fundamental than his super-strength, is to remind us with his indefatigable decency that we can be better than we are.
This movie gets that, and it gets the playful humor of Superman’s camped-up nerd alter ego Clark Kent. But I couldn’t help but feel that if I were a couple of years younger, and didn’t have the experience of the previous movies, I wouldn’t understand what was being so effectively mimicked.
The story has us playing catch-up immediately – positing that after his heroic feats of the first two movies (Singer and co. ignore the ill-conceived Part III and the vapid Part IV), Superman left Earth for five years to visit the remains of his homeworld Krypton. And that the villainous Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey, appropriately swapping eccentricity for megalomania on demand) took advantage of his absence to manipulate his way out of prison and hatch new schemes that, as always, combine global devastation with personal profit. And that Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth), well, Lois got herself a boyfriend (James Marsden) and a son (Tristan Lake Leabu).
Here is where trying to have it both ways creates cracks in the superstructure – Bosworth’s Lane is nothing like the quick-witted, chain-smoking, danger-courting woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown that Margot Kidder portrayed. She was an album of flawed humanity in all its messy glory, and you could understand Superman/Clark’s fascination with her, as well as the profound way his simple kindness drew her to him. It’s understandable that even the Pulitzer Prize-winning Lois Lane would be softened by motherhood, and that she might have mixed feelings about the Man of Steel swooping back into her life, but Bosworth (who is all of 23) just can’t fake the life experience required by her backstory, and what we see on screen seems merely petulant and out of her depth.
Routh, who does cut a dashing and muscular figure, also comes across as too young and callow for the story being told to us. Instead of the mature yearning of lives shattered by circumstance – and this movie sets aside a lot of time in its super-sized 160 minutes for yearning – it feels more like youthful angst, lacking the gravity to hold up the literally earth-shattering climax.
Tribute is due to Singer and writers Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris for a number of witty moments – I especially liked one involving a toothbrush and another involving a piano – and for concocting a big-screen scenario worthy of Superman’s prowess. Of course, it too is dependent on the details of the previous movies, and of Luthor’s familiarity with a certain hideaway in the frozen north. I can’t predict if the uninitiated will buy it, but the visual spectacle it leads to makes up for a lot. If you’ve ever felt like movies have stopped showing you things you haven’t seen before, Superman Returns fights to prove you wrong.
There’s a term bandied about Hollywood for a movie that tries to be too many things to too many people – a feathered fish. It won’t swim and it won’t fly. In trying to reinvent Superman for the 21st century, Singer is still too enamored of the superhero he grew up with to break from it and stand on his own. And in making what amounts to a replacement sequel for a movie over a quarter of a century old, he alters too much of its essential quality and invests too much faith in the memories of his audience. The resulting film is enjoyable, buoyed by the considerable talents involved and their clear affection for the legacy of their source material. But even when it’s doing its best to fly, I see gills.
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