by Ryland Walker Knight
My admiration for Michael Mann has nothing to do with his TV history and the show that spawned his often brilliant (but uneven) career and this new often breathtaking (but muddled) film version: it's all about his movie making. And from what I hear, the show was so great because it was so cinematic. No wonder he broadened his canvass. Mann's got out of bounds visual skills, lofty aims and he knows how to show off. Often those lofty aims get in the way of compelling subject matter (ALI) but more often than not you'll hear people complain about his Mamet-lite approach to dialogue or a prediliction for style over substance. Or that he keeps retelling the same story. At least it's a compelling story. A story full of guns and sex and adrenaline, even existentialism.
MIAMI VICE, the movie, has the weakest, skeletal (though still convoluted and tangential) screenplay of his crime pictures but by and large the strongest, boldest visuals. Employing a high definition digital camera that gives each shot unbelievable depth of field, every composition is a pleasure to behold. With nothing to rival the pristine comic book beauty of SUPERMAN RETURNS' mythic allusions, Mann's world is rather the flip side, all grain and rain, an insane tactile experience. There's a lot of distant thunder and lightning just visible off the edges of the frames you can't ignore. You feel the cloud cover, you dodge the bullets, too.
Without any credits we're not invited into the movie but thrown, head first, into what I'm assuming is a typical Miami club pounding the new theme song, that hideously catchy ditty by Jay-Z and Linkin Park. Dancing, drinking, flirting and staking out a Caribean pimp--typical Vice activity for our new Crockett & Tubbs. Only, now they go by their first names, Sonny & Rico, and Sonny actually wears shirts with buttons, and a handlebar mustache. Why? It's fresh, it's oddly hip, it's badass. Mann's movies are usually badass, all alpha males with issues and guns. (Even Hawkeye, the indiginous hero from LAST OF THE MOHICANS has a gun.) And this movie has some brutal guns, if not subtle issues; in fact, nothing is subtle and that's just fine. As Rico warns middleman heavy José Yero (a smarmy John Ortiz), there's a lot of Jackson Pollock blood on the walls. Except there isn't really that much bloody action: rather, the action we're given(?) is brief and infrequent, yet visceral, punctuated by the deafening sound design and those splatter sites.
Is that the vice a summer movie is supposed to supply? To some degree, yes, and those set pieces certainly deliver. But Mann's lofty aims are bullseyed on that recurring theme of duality across the line of the law. These guys spend most of their time acting as crooks working crooked jobs importing drugs and occasionally killing people. But its dramatic asperations are not followed through on, so, its sobreity fails the vice side of a popcorn flick: the violence is realisticly horrific in its severity and, as such, not quite entertainment. Yet I still find it more engaging (worthwhile?) than that critic's darling PIRATES 2. Mann knows exactly what he's doing when it comes to staging a battle or mapping out a tense raid on a hideout, however, he forgot to write a compelling plot to go along with the action. And there's this romance subplot I haven't mentioned yet.
Gong Li is a fine actress and she does her best with our unruly language but most of her dialogue is lost to her limiting accent. Not that she's unappealing because of it, nor does it really matter given her slight, plot-element characterization--instead, it renders the exchanges between her Isabella and Colin Farrell's Sonny naive and phony. The actors use their eyes and pauses (aided by the editing team, no doubt) to sell their obvious physical chemistry as emotional compatibility for the most part despite their forgettable dialogue. The sex scenes help, too. What's most unfortunate about the romance subplot is its predictability--involving Isabella's ties (business and pleasure) to the drug czar our Vice boys are targetting--and diversion from the already complicated plot.
More convincing, if tenuously so, are Jaime Foxx & Naomie Harris as Rico and Trudy. Their equally sexy love scene is the only time Foxx uses his comedic gifts to flesh out his wooden, constricted role--and performance--while Harris exudes charm throughout, leavening the mood when allowed. Mann is clearly fascinated by how these uber macho men balance home and work but these relationships are routine movie romance in their slight approximations of the soul. But, as I said before, here it's more about the men and their dirty work than their failed loves. This premise simply cannot support what Mann himself so deftly balanced in HEAT & THIEF: its purpose is the gritty action.
Which is why the movie is ultimately a let down. There's a lot of smart filmmaking and beautiful images yet with its flimsy script and isolated action scenes it cannot hope to hold up 20 years later. But, as marketing has proven, that doesn't really matter when there's money to be made. It just helps to have Michael Mann directing traffic and bullets. When the snipers tore that car to pieces you felt like your arm flew off, too, didn't you?
02006: 146 minutes: dir. by Michael Mann: written by Mann, based on characters created by Anthony Yerkovich
Friday, July 28, 2006
Monday, July 24, 2006
by Ryland Walker Knight
I rarely exercise on a regular basis. A run every once in a while, maybe some frisbee or soccer for a few hours every couple weeks. Basketball is a thing of the past with courts routinely crowded by Asian ballers flashing their Jordans and predictable cross overs; but I don’t wear the right shoes and can’t drive to spare the game my ugly jump shot. More often than not I choose the spectator route. It’s easier to critique, you know?
Baseball is my spectator sport of choice: I can’t hit to save my life but I love watching people who can. (I’d like to say soccer but that would be a lie brought on by World Cup fever.) And it’s obvious my affinity for America’s Pastime: it’s got the best stats. Stats to drool over. Stats you can dream about. Stats to surf the internet “researching”. Stats you can love? fantasize about? lust after? If you own a fantasy baseball team the answer is undoubtedly yes.
My favorite stats are always frowned upon by my fellow fantasy friends. For a couple years I weaseled Grounded Into Double Plays (as in induced by the pitcher) into the rotisserie to quite a heft backlash. I thought Shutouts were a good pitching stat—slightly rare but frequent enough to matter—but that proved misguided and unpopular. Most recent it’s been Hit by Pitch (as in the pitcher hits the batter). Now, HBP wasn’t my first choice, but I think it’s a great stat: perfectly arbitrary and ridiculous yet easily a winnable category. Especially if it were switched to a positive. Imagine owning Pedro when he was on the Red Sox from 01998-02002, when he ruled by change up and intimidation. I think he hit somebody just for fun at least once every few games to keep the opposition on their toes, as it were.
There are some stats I’d love to have but Yahoo won’t let me. Batting Average Against (which I’ll substitute Total Bases Allowed for next year instead of HBP) is the best—a true sign of a pitcher’s dominance. Every year there’s a pitcher who wins something like 16 or 18 games but has a WHIP (Walks + Hits over Innings Pitched) close to 1.50. Contrast that to Johan Santana’s Cy Young season: he won 20 games with a WHIP of 0.92 while striking out 265 batters. That’s worthy of a lot of personal quality times over hours, days, months, an entire season.
But you don’t want to get carried away with the stats. You don’t want to root for Jared Weaver to win all his starts against the A’s down the stretch just so you can gain some points, do you? Fuck that. Loyalty must be retained, even if the only stat on the A’s roster you can get hot for is Barry Zito’s BAA: something you may not have next year thanks to free agency inflation and a sheep’s call of stars heading to New York. And with Rich Harden refusing to prove the hype right with injury after injury, the bodacious, curvaceous, lascivious stats we’re promsed every year keep running away and hiding. We have to draft players our allegiances tell us to hate. A-Rod’s not even having a banner year like usual. Soriano strikes out a billion times a year, almost as often as Adam Dunn, who, in turn, hasn’t been hitting the dingers like usual. Even Big Papi has the stigma of playing for the fucking Red Sox.
The only solace is that Barry Bonds is no longer a fantasy stud. His age has caught up now that baseball has caught on to his juice box frenzy. He’s well below his career average, his HR totals are significantly mediocre, he’s even striking out more often than ever in recent memory. He still walks a ton—leads the league in Intentional Base on Balls—but that’s about the only stat he’s giving any owners any dreams about. But they’re the nostalgia-tinged kind. The kind where you stay up late to think about that big meaty head hardly smiling as he swats home run 600. The kind where you wish you had taken him in the third round in 02001 only to kick yourself forever by choosing Tim Hudson because of your cross-bay rivalry. The kind you want to wake up from, really. Right, that kind is the kind we call nightmare. And it’s the kind he’s living now, all balky knees and excess muscle mass. Everything uneasy from the field to the locker room to the house of law where former best friends tell stories of roid rage. And ex mistresses say he threw phones at their heads. He’ll be lucky to finish the season without going to jail at the rate things are going with all this indictment whirlwind on ESPN—
Pardon the interruption but, don’t you own Bonds this year?
Right. Ahem. Well, maybe, I dunno, he could catch fire, turn—
Wait: I picked up Liriano off waivers in May. With stats like that, I might could drool my way to the top. But that’s a lot of drool. And I've only got so much time to waste on the internet.
Tuesday, July 18, 2006
by Michael Strenski
Summer 01996 was the Summer of Odelay for my friends and me (as I'm sure it was to a much larger percentage of American youth). Almost every single memory I retain of that summer revolves around Beck Hansen's follow-up to Mellow Gold in some way. For example, that August my father took my brother and me down to Disneyland and my most distinct recollection of the entire trip is pulling into a gas station after just passing the Grapevine and hearing "I'm writing my will on a three dollar bill in the evening time". Mickey Mouse, In-N-Out Burger or the unrelenting heat are at best vague sketches compared to this photographic moment.
Odelay was like a transmission from God, sent directly to our pubescent brains. It seemed like we were the only people in the whole universe who had the whacked intelligence to find lines like "community service and I'm still the mack" genius. No one else on this planet at this time could possibly be saying "I am the enchanting wizard of rhythm" to everyone they see, could they? Well of course they could (and did) but you could have fooled me. I have always had this problem, thinking huge cultural milestones are something I magically unearthed. After seeing Star Wars for the first time when I was about four, I ran around telling everyone that I had just seen the greatest movie in the world which my family -through some divine providence- just happened to have lying around the house in BetaMax format. I would scream with enthusaism to anyone in earshot, "you see, there are these two robots that are called droids and then there is an explosion and this big thing in black armor bursts in and..." It's about this time that people crushed my dreams, you know, the dream of being the only human who thinks he secretly has the Force.
Another distinct memory in the Summer of Odelay is of me standing at the top of a hill waiting to meet up with all of my friends after taking the PSATs, clutching my recently acquired "Where It's At" single as if it were the Holy Grail (Monty Python's or otherwise). That single meant an awful lot to me. Hell, all it had was one remix and an instrumental and yet I must have listened to it fifty times that summer, trying to glean another little magic trick that Beck had up his sleeve. Between my best friend Adam and I, we had every single single that Beck released (I handled the majority of the CDs and he tracked down the vinyl). These music messages were like baseball cards to us. The UK version of "The New Pollution" single was the best because it had "Lemonade" on it, still one of the best songs ever written. Walking the streets of suburbia with Adam (usually heading to or from Tower Records) we would off-handedly quote lyrics in conversation, just like we learned to do later with the Wu-Tang Clan, a vocabularly that has still not left me. Chickenhead. But that came later, Odelay was the jewel of my summer before junior year, and it still serves as my scrapbook for those three months.
I did not realize this until much, much later but in many ways Odelay signified a very definitive end of innocence within me. The idyllic life could never last for long, be it in my life or with Beck's magic touch. In February of 01997, I saw Beck live for the first time, a completely transcedent experience (I wore a baseball jersey and brown-striped bellbottoms, and danced my fucking ass off) that was clouded perpetually before and after with my mother's first cancer operation which took place earlier that day. Being my mom, she treated the operation like it was no big deal, in fact she seemed more concerned about me making it to the show on time than anything else. Throughout her subsequent illness, she always kept a bright face and thoroughly encouraged my wacky pursuits.
Time flew by and there were more summers defined by albums (Odelay was followed by Wu-Tang Forever, if you must know) and I still have vivid memories of the cultural significance these albums had on their time. Seattle, June, 01998: every single record store, boombox and car stereo that I came within earshot of was playing the Beastie Boys' Hello Nasty, but this wasn't the same. Was it the fact that I was the predetermined age in 01996 to succumb to all of Odelay's wiles? Was Odelay an anomaly among these summertime classics wherein it was the only one that was truly a classic? Was I (and am I) thinking too hard about all of this? I do not know.
Beck continued to release albums which I waited eagerly for and consumed voraciously. For awhile there his winning streak seemed unbeatable. Besides his first three albums (all released in 01994), through Odelay to Midnite Vultures (his crowning acheivement in my eyes) and beyond, Beck had a perfect track record in my book. He was batting .1000.
In August 02002 my mother finally succumbed to the cancer that had pestered her for five whole years. For one-fourth of my life, she had been infected with a disease that no matter how valiantly she fought, and no matter how stoic she acted, it would eventually get the best of her. By far, her death was the most profound thing to ever happen to me and coincidentally it occurred in the same year that Beck released his last decent album. Sea Change was somewhat of a disappointment but there was still plenty on there to be proud of, and I like to keep all of these Beck albums with my memory of my mother, in a place where they can never be anything less than perfect. To me, this was the end of Beck's Golden Age. Whatever came next would never belong in this pantheon. There was the option for his new work to continue to surprise and inspire me but it would be part of the Now, a new chapter that I won't be able to name until the Summer of 02016. No matter what happens in my personal life or Beck's artistic one, I will always be able to pop in the album with the shaggy dog on the cover and rock the catskills.
The scramble suit was described as a grey, amorphous membrane to readers of Philip K Dick's 1977 dystopian classic but to viewers of Richard Linklater's big screen adaptation the scramble suit is an ever-changing canvass animated by misdirection. This is the most faithful Dick film translation, not only in plot terms but the feeling found throughout Dick’s career of striving not to get flushed down the rabbit hole. It’s easy to let the ballyhooed animation technique get in the way of the story and distract the viewer (especially in a poor auditorium) but its intention is neither arch nor superfluous. We’re meant to question the reality we’re given, as in many works by both Dick and Linklater. And that’s what makes this marriage so fanboy sweet: the guy who made Waking Life and Before Sunset is going Sci-Fi to adapt Philip K Dick’s (possibly) best novel. The ever hip Salon.com has said “There’s no other filmmaker, living or dead, who could produce a futuristic sci-fi nightmare, a hipster comedy, a haunting film noir and a cartoon, all in the same movie.”
Yet Linklater sidesteps self aware glibness with the animation concept: from the outset we cannot help but question this world we're presented with and, ultimately, the story’s embedded metaphors about identity and reality extend to, and embody, the film as a whole. What scramble suit am I wearing today? Should I shave my beard? What would you see looking into my mask?
We meet Keanu Reeves first as Agent Fred, shrouded by his suit, addressing a room about the benefits of the rehab clinic called A New Path. The constantly shifting skin that covers Fred is the first show-off spectacle we’re given but it’s treated as a given so we soon forget its trickery and accept its random oddity as a norm. Fred stops his speech halfway through, pausing his projected voice to complain to his boss from within the suit that he can’t stand the smell of useless propaganda in the script, and walks out of the room, his scramble suit and the police station. Once outside we see him on a scanner’s monitor as Bob Arctor, the name his dealer on the phone, and his junkie roommates, know him by. Later, we learn that Fred has been assigned to investigate Arctor by a superior called Agent Hank and is given free reign to edit himself out of the surveillance tapes of his home to further cloud his “true” identity and drift into obscurity—from himself, his friends, his world. While this sounds confusing, and it is by design, the film is fairly easy to follow despite all the madness onscreen plot-wise and structure-wise and drug-wise. Like a lot of Dick novels, and Linklater films, A Scanner Darkly is more about metaphysical dilemmas than plot so the misdirection works perfectly and we get lost in the fear of our protagonist, neglecting the “real world” problem of finding the source of the drugs. Critics routinely harp on Dick’s prose, not his plotting; the plot is secondary to his philosophical ambitions but not ignored.
The downward spiral of Arctor is perpetuated by a drug called Substance D (or Death or plain old D) which, much like Dick’s nemesis methamphetamines, is instantaneously addictive and degenerative. The film opens exactly as the novel does, witnessing Charles Freck—Rory Cochrane upping the manic ante on his stoner Slater character from Linklater’s Dazed and Confused—scrubbing and spraying himself and his dog to clean off imaginary aphids he’s convinced are plaguing his junkie-filthy apartment. And how does he counterattack this nightmare vision? He enlists the talkative, always in overdrive, Barris (an inimitably energetic Robert Downey Jr) to help him score cocaine from “Bob’s girl”, and aforementioned dealer, Donna. Winona Ryder plays Donna with unexpected depths as a cold coke head who can’t stand to touch anybody because of her inescapable addiction. After her shoplifting scandal demoted her from her celebrity pedastool now occupied by the ever-rising Anne Hathaway, Ryder's scars work to add a new dimension of weariness to her often plain jane acting style of before.
Linklater has been fascinated by fast talkers, slow talkers & non talkers since his first films and it’s no surprise that the majority of the film relies on idiot banter from this core of junkies. (“That bike has 9 gears, not 18! Six there and three there, that’s 9!”) Often these scenes appear to go nowhere but Linklater's affinity for, and knowledge of, day-to-day dialogue rhythms--not the off kilter animation--hold the audience's attention piqued, ready for this world to wrench awry at any minute. The tension cannot match Before Sunset's countdown desperation or Dazed and Confused's teen agnst but the random junkie idiocy on display in Arctor's living room and the police state outside where you'll get thrown in a van for dissent was enough to carry me along down the drainhole with these manic dolts.
The casting of notorious Hollywood bad boys with drug histories is yet another stroke of formalist genius: maybe Robert Downey Jr, Woody Harrelson and Keanu Reeves would, in fact, be happy to sit around all day getting high. Which would be the narc? Would it be the guy who spent the 90s as a target for “don’t be River Phoenix”; the guy who hung himself off the Golden Gate Bridge for hemp rights; or the guy brought out of The Matrix—chosen, in fact—to bring balance to our shaky celluloid CGI reality? Yeah, probably that last one. However, whether his movie star presence balances our film world is up for debate.
Dick’s own drug addled demons are on full display as well (both on the page and on screen) and as much as this film is about surveillance, the real attack is on the drug market from addicts to dealers to suppliers. Linklater retains the novel’s ending—to go along with its opening—and the requiem for all of Dick’s fallen friends, victims of the labyrinth world they only clouded with drugs. It’s not quite a scared straight morality tale where we vow to better ourselves, it aims to keep you asking question after question after question: nothing in this bleak (yet unmistakably funny) world can be certain and you damn yourself to take anything at face value, especially if its face is a scrambled stew of lies that never ceases to morph anew. There’s no stopping this, no matter what. Do your best. And don’t hide: it won’t help.
02006: 100 minutes: dir. Richard Linklater: written by Linklater from Philip K Dick's novel
Friday, July 14, 2006
I was unable to attend the premiere of Yo La Tengo's live accompaniment to Jean Painlevé's "legendary but rarely-seen" series of underwater documentaries back when I was a freshman at UC Santa Cruz in 2001. Within that school year I had become a devoted fan, finally discovering the Matador catalog outside of Pavement, buying up all the used records I could find and downloading the others. I ached to go but on top of the expensive tickets, my car was at home in Berkeley and--worst of all--being the silly introvert I was that year, I had no friends to drive me. When Sounds of Science was released on CD I was eager to buy it but YLT were only selling it through their website and I was too lazy to send away an order. I was able to download the album a few months later and was pleased when it didn't wow me; it was groovy but I could tell something was missing. After last night, I know what it was:
Coupled with James McNew's fuzzy, rolling bass & Georgia Hubley's perfect, odd rhythms & Ira Kaplan's controlled chaos guitar solos, I felt lucky. I kept hoping they'd end the set and come back for a Beach Boys cover but was happy with what they gave me. (If you want to hear brief samples click here.)
The best marriage was probably LIQUID CRYSTALS, with its fluorescent visuals that recall the finale of 2001, which could have been rote psychedelia scored by Pink Floyd nonsense but this trio has more in common with Ligeti than Roger Waters. Their score is punctuated by noise shards from Kaplan over steady jazz kit work from Hubley and McNew's meandering bass. And like good improvisers, they know when to peak and when to lay back; but we know the crescendo is always building. Another favorite was the melodic-cute SEA URCHINS where Painlevé's quixotic narration makes interesting parallels: "the stems, at high magnification, resemble temple pillars." I won't soon forget the final rushing camera move across an urchin's stiff stems: the move could be no longer than two inches but with the macro zoom lens it felt like a helicopter (or space ship) flying over a forrest of alien trees. Then, mid-flight, it cuts to the eponymous creatures assembling into the word "FIN". I hadn't felt that stirred by a film's editing since certain juxtaposing cutaways in THE NEW WORLD; for instance, the shot of a ship's main sail unfurling inside the scene of Smith's first interrogation at the Powhatan village. But it would not have worked were it not for the live musical element.
For a while I listened a lot of "noise" music and bought a few too many imported albums. But after I saw Merzbow live at the first stateside All Tomorrow's Parties I swore off recorded noise, no matter how much I loved that first Fennesz album I bought. The impossible force of a live noise show (and that Merzbow set in particular) will never be matched by my headphones no matter how loud I crank the volume; you have to feel it in your chest. Our view of the screen last night was often blocked and people kept shuffling up and down the isles but I will, in all likelihood, not revisit the recorded versions of these soundtracks. The marriage of live music and film was just fine by me and, as such, no bedroom séance will conjure that feeling I had zooming over that field of urchin stems.
That's why I listened to Painful this morning on my 45 minute commute to Queens. Most fans will point you to I Can Hear the Hear Beating as One as the group's magnum opus, the perfect expansion of Painful's themes to operatic heights that transcends the college/indie rock genre YLT helped define. I disagree. ICHTHBAO has broader aims that it bullseyes, sure, but Painful didn't need expansion; it's perfect as it is.
With James McNew firmly in place on bass, Painful shows off what has become their now-definitive sound: a waterbed of bass and organs colored fuzzy by drivers, spare yet energetic drumming, and diverse guitar work that careens from syrup sheen to siren squall. Sometimes Kaplan’s noisy solos counterpoint his ethereal, sweeping pads of delayed melody from song to song and sometimes at the same time in the same song. He’s given this freedom by the steady and reliable rhythm duo of Hubley and McNew, who are never showy but always effective. It’s a wonder to hear each player work off one another.
What makes this band still more intriguing is the marriage at its core between Ira and Georgia. Ira sings more often than his wife (and his guitars often background her stellar stick work) but he concedes to Georgia’s poignant, tender vocals on a few stand out songs like the centerpiece ‘Nowhere Near’. They often back one another but on ‘The Whole of the Law’ they duet until Mr tells Mrs “Found out I was in love with you” in a moment so naked you might blush.
But they wake you up right away with the next song, a re-imagined reprisal of the opener ‘Big Day Coming’ that replaces ambient synthesizers with meaty bass guitar propulsion. Often we are lulled into forgetting this band can turn up the gain and wail. Even if they are middle aged and domesticated and married. After a year of 9-5 work weeks, early evenings and weekend daytrips, maybe this will be the band that defines the angst New York has plagued me with and detached me from my loved ones. Yo La Tengo! may not only be the Cuban outfielder’s cry but mine: I finally get this thing called growing up in love. You get what you give and I am eternally grateful for this band and the young lady in my life. I hope to attend a Maxwell’s Hannuka concert one of these days but for now I can’t wait to taste Grand Canyon rainfall.
Monday, July 10, 2006
by Ryland Walker Knight
Please tell me it was more than mere trash talking. Please tell me he insulted your mother, your Algerian heritage, your bald spot, your four sons, your wife, your recent limp club play, your slowing skills--all of that, all at once--mixed in with some combination of the devil, rape, AIDS, necrophilia, self-inflation, cancer and bukkake. Tell me it shattered your world. Because futball fans the world over are trying to piece theirs together.
You were primed to surpass Pélé. You were already a legend. You did what so many returning older stars could not: Beckham, Nedved, Ronaldo, etc. Your dominance against Brazil was unreal, a performance for all time. You had already delivered a brilliant PK goal off the underside of the crossbar most players would boot over the net. And if not for your astronomically enormous ego, you could have burried another not only to help your team but your failing nation. Or did that North African ire thicken your blood past boiling so all your love of Liberté, Fraternité et Egalité evaporated?
You were a god. You were loved by an entire continent, nigh near the globe. Now? You are a selfish jerk.
How can you explain this to your children? Will you ever live it down? I worry we will never forget. Frank Ribery will not replace you, no matter what the French press may print. And there's hardly a player in the world ready to fill your enormous shoes. That's a heavy burden for a mere mortal to carry, and we're all allowed lapses of judgement, yet on such a stage as the World Cup Final Match, that was inexcusable. You may have been provoked but you owed it to yourself, too, to be a man and let whatever those pretty boys said all game to glance off you.
You must be having a shit day but one more question: how could you not rejoin your teammates, your friends, your brothers on the field? They cried alone while you snuck out the backdoor. Awful.
"We were waxing lyrical about him--rightly so--before the game, during the game, about his career, about his performance tonight..."
On the other hand: bravissimo, Azzurri. I hate your fucking guts.
Wednesday, July 05, 2006
by Ryland Walker Knight
Sure the real estate angle is silly. Sure Kate Bosworth is as wrong for Lois Lane as Tommy Lee Jones was for Two Face. Sure they wasted Kal Penn and that odd detail of the documentarian goon.
This movie is about an icon. And it delivers some of the best iconic images for a superhero film since Burton's BATMAN.
Going in with lowered expectations (yet holding tight my respect for Bryan Singer) helped me enjoy the film more than it may deserve. And all the success of the film truly belongs to that guy in the director's chair. He embues these superhero stories with real worries but he never wallows in self-pity. Superman may be an outcast who doesn't really get everything in return that his heroism warrants (and yes, he pouts), but it's all about the bigger picture: striving for that light to show the way. That's what a hero does, super or not--they perservere.
I've never been into Superman comics, or as a hero really, because he was conceived of as so infallible: even more so than Achilles. But this film makes him more human than anybody else he shares the screen with, even with that stupid curly q of hair. Brandon Routh deserves more credit than critics are giving him for taking on this role and, while using Christopher Reeve's performances as a jumping off point, makes his new Superman all his own. It's a shame he has to adore such a vacuous beauty like Bosworth. There's no way in hell I believe she's a 30 year old mother. Or writer, for that matter--she looks nervous behind the keyboard. You don't really understand what either Superman/Kent or her stand-in hubby Richard White (the underrated James Marsden) see in this Lois other than her movie star good looks. Ms Bosworth's indignant immaturity shows in her self-righteous take on being "right" much like how Julia Roberts acts her characters; it's all selfishness. Which makes Routh's unselfishness poignant, oddly enough. His goodbye in the seaplane made me inhale deeply because you can see both Routh (and Superman) trying his human best.
And I've said nothing of the reason anybody goes to these movies: the spectacular, visceral action. This is another thing that sets Singer apart from the rest of current blockbuster directors: he plans out every detail of an action scene so it not only excites us but helps the story and develops his characters. That's why X2 worked so well: you cared that Jean Grey was sacrificing herself. And that's why SUPERMAN RETURNS succeeds: he knows he has to protect the citizens of Metropolis first before he can rescue the one he loves and it eats at him. So when he soaks the sun before diving underwater and into the seabed you feel the peace of that quiet among the clouds but also the resignation that Lois cannot be his woman. For now. Now means he uses his powers to the best of his abilities so this new continent Lex Luthor has fiendishly created cannot overpower and engulf our home; we like aliens to help us, not dominate us, and especially not with crystal trickery. (A whole other take on this film which I'll leave to somebody else.)
But how about Kevin Spacey replacing Gene Hackman? It works, actually. It's campy in the right spots and frightening in others but he could have gone overboard. As it stands, he's obviously the best actor on screen enjoying himself just like Spacey always does; his self-inflation works for a devious character like Lex Luthor. However, real estate--while a shrewd and calculating business--is hardly devious enough for a supervillian. What makes it a plausible villian plot is Kryptonite. And let's be honest, it's better than Nuclear Man from that cold war bookend, SUPERMAN IV: QUEST FOR PEACE. We even get a The Passion of The Superman moment midway through, to show Superman cannot always beat Luthor with sheer will, and without a gameplan.
I hope Singer makes enough money so he can be happy to return to smaller films and use his newfound power to emmulate the career of his idol, Spielberg. Like Steve, Bryan has an overload of talent that often shines brilliant despite lapses of judgement or time-conscious compromises. Singer's knack for beautiful compositions, tender humanity and stunning action scenes will surely spell a long career to rival his idol's. I can forsee an Oscar or two once he makes that transition to "serious" films. Maybe he'll foreground his queer & adoption subtexts and create a Hollywood film to rival BAD EDUCATION or MYSTERIOUS SKIN. One can only hope, for now. Clearly, sky's the limit.
02006: 153 minutes: dir. Bryan Singer: written by Michael Dougherty, Dan Harris, Singer (all also story) & Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster (characters)