REVIEW: Superman Returns

Warning: SPOILERS will be discussed, but not “the big one” you’re co-workers and friends are just DYING to tell you. Read on at your own risk.

All other things aside, I do not envy the task that Bryan Singer (late of the two good “X-Men” films and “The Usual Suspects”) was set up with in directing “Superman Returns,” a film of pop-culture import so enormous that it’s title isn’t just a rough description of it’s premise… it’s it’s own reason for being: This film isn’t just here to be a good movie in it’s own right, or even a good SUPERMAN movie in it’s own right… It sets for itself the herculean task of sucessfully re-inserting Superman, eldest and greatest (and thus often least narratively-approachable) of Superheroes, into a cinematic era which is already teeming with his more immediately-three-dimensional, angstier, more humanized progeny.

And it has to do so with baggage. That Superman’s general status as the 20th Century heir-apparent to Joseph Campbell’s “hero with a thousand faces” means by default that everyone has their own nearly religiously-held opinion as to what he is/means/should-be is problem enough, but fate saw fit to place yet more weights atop these already impressive expectations: Nostalgia for the original Richard Donner/Lester “Superman” movies was always going to weigh as a factor, but that was before star Christopher Reeve’s tragic paralysis, ascension to real-life iconic hero and eventual death made him and, by proxy, “his” “Superman” work essentially untouchable in the public mind. That even the accomplished Singer might make a passable “Superman” film against such odds and expectations was a lot to hope for…

…and so to see him make a great one almost seems like a literal miracle to behold: “Superman Returns” is a grandly-entertaining, dramatic, heartfelt and awe-inspiring film; immediately among the finest films of 2006, the finest of the “summer movies” thus-far period and certainly one of the best superhero movies ever made… not to get too “inside baseball” on this, but we’re talking on-par with the original two films, “Spider-Man,” “The Incredibles” and even the oft-venerated “Captain Marvel” serial.

The film’s initial stroke of genius, fueled no-doubt primarily by a genuine nostalgia on Singer’s part but likely-also more than a little by necessity of compromise, is to set itself up not as yet another re-tread of the origin story that everyone knows but as part of a broadly-defined pre-existing continuity: The style, sensibility, crystaline Kryptonian art-design, digitally re-jiggered Marlon Brando footage and (of course) the John Williams theme music of the original films are retained; grounding the proceedings in the most-known of what “everybody knows.”

With this seemingly-simple fusion of re-invention and reverence, Singer and his cohorts deftly side-step the gut-instinct to seek unfavorable comparisons to the immortal Reeve films and in the same stroke give themselves the leeway to take things in an entirely fresh direction: They’re film hits the ground running, trusting in audience-familiarity to afford them license to put the Man of Steel through an original story of their own… and what they’ve come up with is a doozy.

Having suddenly vanished five years ago, compelled by the possibility that astronomers had discovered the remnants of his desicated homeworld Krypton, Superman returns to a world that’s since had a lot of time to reconsider it’s earlier embrace of him. Specifically, his onetime love Lois Lane has moved on rather definitively: She has a new beau named Richard a, son named Jason, and a Pulitzer Prize winning article titled “Why The World Doesn’t Need Superman.” Ouch.

Need or not, the non-Lois population of Earth gets over it’s seperation anxiety pretty swiftly, especially when Superman’s attempts to re-woo Lois prove futile (Richard is, enjoyably, a totally decent and heroic fellow in his own right) and he opts to seek comfort in a spree of world-saving acts. Elsewhere, Lex Luthor has weasled his way out of prison and into a massive inheritance, which he’s used to steal the powerful Kryptonian power-crystals from Superman’s arctic Fortress of Solitude. His nefarious plan for them I won’t reveal, save that it’s one of the most gloriously “Silver Age” nutty supervillian ploys put to screen in some time, and that if you’re honestly bugged by the logistics or practicality of it you really ought to remind yourself that we’re talking an evil plan by LEX LUTHOR.

To say any more as to the actual story would be the tread into the territory of spoilers for what might end up being one of bigger story suprises of the summer. Singer and his partners have chambered and fired a story-bullet that 60 years worth of DC Comics scribes have avoided like the plague, and the confident result is a story of profound resonance; a re-statement of the one of the key themes of the Superman mythology explored in an entirely new way.

And mythology is the key word here, on the presentation side. The bulk of the film, as it should be, is a seriously-maintained character drama that happens to revolve around Clark Kent, aka Superman. But when the plot leads into one of several action sequences, the visual scheme aims to emphasize it’s lead character in the most explicitly mythic (if not outright messianic) terms one is going to find outside of an Alex Ross calendar: Superman descends from space hovering in the pose of a Renaissance Crucifixtion, strains under the weight of falling planes, chunks of architecture and… well, you’ll see… with a strain clearly evocative of Atlas, endures a beating that’s as blunt a Christ-paralell as anything in the Mel Gibson canon and at a key point even comes bursting down through the clouds in a literal shaft of light. In less symbolic terms, the action scenes trend (wisely) away from fisticuffs (cause, after all, what’d be the point?) in favor of grand feats of strength, speed and sheer will.

The immediate standout among the actors is fresh-face Brandon Routh in the title role. For a moment, it almost seems that the early criticisms were correct that his performance essentially amounts to a Christopher Reeve imitation… but this is not the case. Look closer, listen harder, and you’ll realize: It’s not that he looks and sounds just like Reeve, it’s that he and Reeve BOTH look and sound just like Superman. Kevin Spacey, as expected, shows up to throw big-league pitching in the villian role: His Lex Luthor is an interesting interpretation, framed as a kind of transition between Gene Hackman’s colorful huckster in the earlier films and the cold, calculating supervillian more familiar from the comics and recent animated series.

Kate Bosworth, it must be said, is simply a little TOO young-looking to be playing a veteran newshound, but her overall performance is solid and hits the proper emotional beats… after all, it’s no small feat to come off onscreen as consistently likable when the foundation of the your character is being the bitter ex who makes the Man of Steel weepy. James Marsden, formerly the late, lamented Cyclops of Singer’s late, lamented “X-Men” films, has the most difficult role and does fine work as Richard White; the man who finds Superman a potential romantic rival and yet doesn’t descend into jealousy or vendetta.

In the end, and overall, the most important thing I can say here is that the title didn’t lie. Superman has returned, the franchise is reborn, and a so-far deeply uneven summer is saved. Whether or not the “world” needs him will, presumably, be fodder for further sequels. But for now, it turns out that the movies sure as hell did.


REVIEW: Nacho Libre

I’m still not sure what to think about Jared Hess, director of “Napolean Dynamite” and now “Nacho Libre.” He demonstrably has a clear enough vision of the sort of films he wants to make, and his work has the quirky sense of feigned amaturism. Problem is, it’s still unclear how much of it is actually feigned and how much really is just sloppy… and whether or not that matters.

“Napolean,” whatever else it was, was off on an odd-duck “kick” all it’s own: The plot openly followed a 100% by-the-book “school dork makes good” formula, and that seemed to be the point. Since Hess and his film could count on nearly everyone being able to intuit every beat and turn of the actual story, they were free to focus squarely on every weird little character tick and “local color” oddity that drifted into the frame. Anyone who’d seen more than one teen comedy in their life could tell you that Napolean would come out of his shell in front of a huge crowd to help Pedro, and once the dancing came into play they could tell you how… but could ANYONE have predicted, well, that?

This seems to be Hess’ “style” thus far, and it’s once-more put to use in “Nacho Libre.” Jack Black leads as Nacho, a Mexican friar minding the kitchen of a poor Mexican orphanage and nursing a not-so-secret dream: To become a Luchadore (masked Mexican professional wrestler) and be rich and famous. Newly-inspired by the arrival of an alluring Nun and the befriending of a homeless man of nearly-feral fighting skills, Nacho sets out to live this dream… without really being very strong, physically fit or even slightly skilled at the Lucha Libre sport. But since, as it turns out, even losing a match pays well enough to provide Nacho’s orphanage with desperately-needed food money, he finds himself drawn deeper into the wrestling world. Just like with “Napolean,” most of us know where this is going: Nacho will be conflicted between fame and his “real” life, have a fall, rise again, etc. The story isn’t the point, all the weird “stuff” Hess and Black pack the running time with is.

The film skews to a younger audience, despite Black’s reputation otherwise, and they’ll be the age group that probably appreciates it the most. It’s more silly than outright funny, relying on the absurdity of the situations (and the general absurdity of Lucha Libre, here presented without excess parody) and characters to drive most of the humor. In a Felliniesque move, Hess has stocked the “bit parts” with actors seemingly selected because they are “funny looking,” which eventually gives the proceedings the air out captured surreality.

“Nacho” isn’t quite the “thing from another world” oddity that “Napolean” was, but it’s endearing and charming on it’s own strange terms. Black has an interesting aura going on as Nacho, turning what could have been (and, lets be fair, occasionally still is) a one-note ethnic caricature into a character who’s fills out more than just his “stretchy-pants.” But the heart of the film is young Darius Rose as little orphan Chancho, a real find of a child actor who’s deadpan earnesty is really something to see: If the way he’s enraptured by Nacho’s exploits transmits even a little to the kids his age in the audience, Nickelodeon has a real hit on it’s hands.


REVIEW: An Inconvenient Truth

The problem with Global Warming is that it’s Warming that’s Global.

The problem with Al Gore is that he’s Al Gore.

The problem with “An Inconvenient Truth” is that it needs to be “the Global Warming Movie,” but it’s stuck being “the Al Gore Movie.”

And the problem with being “the Al Gore Movie”… is being “the Al Gore Movie.”


Former Vice President Al Gore’s 2000 election loss to George W. Bush (yes, he lost. Get OVER IT already and think about stuff you can actually DO something about!) was subject-zero for the current, oft-lamented stereotype of Democratic politicians as being blackbelts in the art of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. A combination of ego, poor planning and innability to recognize his own blind-spots did him in that time, and now it does him in again; transforming what could well have been a full on image-changing public-reinvention into yet another missed opportunity for both the man and his movement.

And he almost made it, too. That’s the sad part.

About 80% of the total running time of “An Inconvenient Truth” is made up of what could easily have been the most nobly-intended, simply-executed pretext for a mass-market documentary in recent years: A sober-voice, calmly-demeanored man who obviously knows his subject inside and out stands on a stage before a large video screen and explains with hard science and matter-of-fact visual aides the realities of a serious, controversial issue. In this case, global warming. In a pleasant-surprise, the automatic humor that comes from the fact that our lecturer is the nigh-mechanical former Veep subsides pretty quickly at first. One starts to notice that Gore is more animated here, doing his power-point presentation, than he ever was in politics. “He’d be a decent teacher,” you realize.

So it’s off to a good start. “The way to screw this sort of thing up,” you may surmise, “would be to make it overly political and/or engaged in hero-worship of the star.” So guess what they do?

This is the problem: If you go to see a movie “starring” Al Gore, and in the film Mr. Gore makes an offhand reference to humanity “making mistakes” and the film follows with a “Florida Recount 2000” montage and eeeeeevil slow-mow shots of now-President Bush, and in response you laugh/applaud/smile-knowingly… you’re already “sold.” The message of this movie reached you before you even saw it. And that’s fine. Great. Hurrah for environmentalism. BUT, well… you’re only half of the people Gore himself says his message needs to reach. The other half, whatever you may think of them, are the ones that all this plain-spoken science and easily-digested message-relaying really needs to get to… and cheap, unnecessary political shots like that and a dozen others mean they’ll probably feel personally-attacked and stop listening.

The rest of the film executes a swan-dive into the hero-worship mistake. Getting more screen time than ANY of the death, devastation and turmoil caused or said to be caused by global warming are endless shots of Gore. Gore looking sadly out of windows. Gore visiting his old family farm. Gore sheepishly towing his luggage through customs (awwww, see? He’s just like YOU!) taking phone calls while working at his laptop, etc. In short, the film ceases to be about Al Gore’s warning about Global Warming and instead becomes about what a wonderful, selfless, heroic and generous fellow Gore is for taking the time to warn us.

When one thinks how easily this could’ve been turned into a good, even great documentary… with more multimedia, more footage, someone OTHER than Gore doing the talking (Morgan Freeman, maybe?) it’s just kind of sad to watch. The unfortunate truth is that Gore has cast himself as the only hope for saving the Earth… and if I was the Earth I’d be pretty damn worried.



By now you’ve heard that “Cars” is Pixar’s first less-than-great movie. I’m here to tell that, while this is indeed true, it may be time to take a deep breath and consider things. Here are the facts of “Cars” as I can see them: Pixar, a film studio that has previously delivered straight 9’s and 10’s (plus the instant-eleven that was “The Incredibles”) has now released a mere 7. The obvious downside is, yes, those of us anticipating yet another grand Pixar entry to brighten a somewhat-dreary summer will have to settle for something that’s just “okay.” But, let’s remember, a 7 is still pretty good… especially this summer, in the wake of “X-Men 3,” “The Omen,” and more.

The problems with the film are myriad, but it suffers chiefly in the story department. More directly, it suffers because there’s just not that much too it. It seems kind of strange, but also undeniable: The same minds that found Kurosawa in an anthill, emasculation-anxiety in Toys, fatherhood in Fish and Monsters… that produced the most moving hymn to the power of The Individual since “Atlas Shrugged” in the guise of a Superhero spoof… somehow, they seem unable to find any depth in the notion of anthropomorphic automobiles other than obvious car puns, embarassing pandering to the High Church of Nascar and a “city boy gets morality-check from small towners” plot outline that was stale over ten years ago when it was “Doc Hollywood.”

The film is at it’s best in the visual realm, wherein Lassetter and his crew deftly imagine an entire world populated not by humans but by living cars (right down to buzzing insects “played” by itty-bitty Volkswagons. Cute.) The cars themselves are marvels of design, ambling about on bouncy rubber tires with big front-bumper grins (and mustache-grills where applicable) and eyes taking up their windshields. Within this all-car universe, a massive Nascar-reminiscient race called The Piston Cup appears the equivalent of World Cup Soccer… save that this event would probably be watched in the U.S. (Dear god… FIFA meets Nascar… it’s like if the worst parts of Europe and America got smooshed together into one thing. The horror… the horror…) Our guide to this world is Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson, named for a Pixar animator and not Steve McQueen) a brash young rookie sensation aiming to win the Piston Cup by unseating veteran The King (Richard Petty, part of a deluge of race-world celebrities making cameos.)

The biggest problem comes right away: Simply put, while the character animation is a wonder and Wilson’s “who, me?” cockiness is a fine fit, Lightning is a pretty annoying hero. He’s a braggart, a jerk and over-ambitious… in other words, the kind of Family Film lead who’s whole existance is to broadcast “teach me my valuable lesson” until a cast of supporting goodies answer. All well and good, save that there’s nothing TO Lightning other than being a jerk: He’s got no backstory, no depth of character, no real reason to root for him to improve. Where’d he come from? Why is he friendless? What’s with the ‘tude? We never find out. In any case, a series of contrivances traps a Piston Cup-bound Lightning in Radiator Springs; onetime jewel of Route 66 blighted when the Interstate bypassed it. When he accidentally destroys a stretch of road, boss-man Doc (Paul Newman) orders him to repave it before he can leave.

In other words, bratty Lightning will now be forced to stick around and learn a certain number of lessons from each of the town’s colorful residents prior to the Big Race. Here comes mis-step number two… the supporting cast just isn’t very interesting. It’s an assortment of overly-obvious gags: The Jeep is a drill sergeant, the low-rider (Cheech Marin) is Latino, the VW Microbus (George Carlin) is a hippie stoner, etc. Bonnie Hunt fares best in a straight turn as Sally the Porsche, big-city lawyer turned self-appointed savior of the town, while Newman has fun as a crusty Hudson Hornet with a big secret that, unfortunately, you’ll guess right away. The surprising standout is comedian Larry the Cable Guy as the Gump-like tow truck Mater (Tow Mater, ha ha.) That I find Larry the Cable Guy’s act funny has always surprised me, but he’s hysterical here… as though he was born to play a talking tow truck.

The film really wants to have something meaningful to say about the lamented loss of roadside culture in the era of the Interstate, and I share the Pixar people’s obvious love of cross-country kitsch. But here, despite a sepia-toned flashback to “the good old days” of the family road trip that’s trying AWFULLY hard to match the similar lump-in-the-throat nostalgia moment from “Toy Story 2,” the feeling here is just this side of… well, hollow. It’s one thing to ignore the inherent contradiction in a product of the Walt Disney Company sermonizing about the loss local identity to nationwide commerce, since after all films can’t really help who’s name is on the poster. But it’s another matter entirely to try and buy these lessons coming from a film that so happily drapes itself in the colors of that absolute pinnacle of crass commercialism that is Nascar.

There’s just not enough too this, sadly. It’s cute, it’s inoffensive, but in the end it’s just to much movie and not enough meat. Fun to watch, but it’s no keeper.


REVIEW: The Omen (2006)

Review contains MINOR SPOILERS.

The original “Omen” is definately the lesser of the “big studio devil movie” trilogy, even in the shadow of it’s classier (“Rosemary’s Baby”) and more visceral (“The Exorcist”) fellows. But it’s still a fine little movie, the kind of solid workmanlike effort one expects from a Richard Donner film. The new remake is slavishly faithful to the original, which at least shows a noble effort to keep things small and clever, but which creates a problem when an original film is so well remembered: This remake yields no surprises to call it’s own, no real scares of it’s own invention. It’s a copy, but with less arresting performances and direction.

Pity poor Liev Schieber, a gifted leading actor here stuck once more with the task of toplining a remake that no one will ever confuse with it’s classic, much as he was in the dreadful retelling of “The Manchurian Candidate.” St. Schrieber: Patron Saint of Wholly-Unnecessary Remakes. Schrieber picks up from Gregory Peck as Robert Thorn, a plucky fellow who’s apparently wise enough to become a U.S. Ambassador but not quite quick enough to realize that “sure, why not?” is the WRONG response when you’re wife miscarries and a creepy Italian priest calls you into the hospital basement and offers you a freshly-orphaned replacement.

The kid’s name is Damien, and unless you’ve not visited the planet Earth in any of the years since the original “Omen” came out that tells you the rest of the story. Seems Armageddon is on the way, according to a preposterously-silly opening scene depicting a Vatican power-point presentation that name-drops Hurricane Katrina and 9/11 as signs of the end times… and the Thorn’s excessively-moody tyke is The Antichrist.

The hook, as in the original, is that the saucer-eyed hellspawn will use his adoptive dad’s political contacts as a shortcut to global power-play, and as before this eventually seems like too much work: Seems Old Scratch has the situation pretty well in hand, able to send everything from psycho dogs to visions to lightning storms to Mia Farrow as a creep-tastic Governess to the aid of his boy… with all that at Hell’s disposal, isn’t riding the coattails of a mid-level dignitary kind of a long way between A and B?

The film is at it’s best recreating the “big” money-scenes of the original, though naturally they suffer a bit removed from the gutsy grit of the mid-70s. At it’s worst, it’s trying to hard to make up for worn material with cheap tricks: A series of nightmare sequences involving Julia Stiles as the rapidly-unraveling Mrs. Thorn are laughable attempts to ape “The Shining,” and topical references like the aforementioned 9/11 hat-tip and scenes of a dying Pope are dead on arrival. In the end, it’s not awful… it’s just not really much of anything.


P.S. Now that 6/6/06 is done with forever, can we PLEASE stop fussing over the damn number? Seriously, if I only ever impart ONE piece of real knowledge on this blog, let this be it: 666 isn’t a date. Or a birthmark. Or 1999 inverted. Or Hillary Clinton’s GPA solved for X. It’s a name. In the language the Book of Revelations was written in, all letters had corresponding numbers, so “his number was 666” just means that that will be the sum of the Antichrist’s “name” when all the letters are added up. Really, that’s it. Don’t tell me I never taught you anything.

REVIEW: The Break-Up

My continued mystification by the popularity of Jennifer Anniston notwithstanding, this is a darn funny movie, and you should go see it even if you’re not nuts about romantic comedies (and I’m not.)

The studio-hyped pretext for the movie, filtered out through months and months worth of the utterly useless, IQ-draining rags like “US Weekly” and “People,” is the chance to see the film wherein Anniston and Vince Vaughn “hooked up.” The ACTUAL (read: not asinine) reason to see the film is for it’s uniqueness: It begins at what is traditionally the beginning of the 3rd act in other rom-coms, i.e. when the “perfect” relationship hits a snag… only here, the process of splitting-up will encompass the whole of the story, and a “happy” ending is NOT a garauntee.

That’s the pitch: two hours of a soon-to-be-ex couple trading vicious verbal barbs and emotional slings n’ arrows. This is a good idea.

Vaughn is a natural at this material, inhabiting his role as a slightly-overweight Chicago tour guide who’s comfort zone envelopes the couch and who’d prefer more video game time and maybe a pool table to his live-in girlfriend’s efforts to turn the condo into a yuppie-fied place of entertaining. Likewise, Anniston’s severely-limited range (say it with me one more time, kids: “Friends” was never, ever, ever all that funny!) fits snugly within the realm of playing a cultured art gallery manager who fell for a “fun guy” and is innevitably shocked to find herself living with a “clothes on the living room floor guy.”

The fights are loud, angry and full of really cutting remarks (when I saw it, the opening-night crowd’s male and female members “cheered on” each verbal “blow” landed by their respective avatar like Boston and New York baseball fans) that feel honest and real; but this is not to suggest that director Peyton Reed (“Down With Love”) has turned in some kind of dreary non-comedy. It’s populated with colorful supporting players and a real-enough feeling comic contrivance (they try to continue sharing the condo) to play as a thoroughly enjoyable mainstream comedy without sacrificing any of it’s overall realism and depth.

In other words, it’s a big-star rom-com that doesn’t completely suck, which is pretty darn rare and thus always reccomended.