Wednesday, July 05, 2006

"Superman Returns", Or, America's never-ending need for "heroes"

Not quite a colossal bore, but boring enough to put my girlfriend asleep for about a half-hour during the middle of it. Superman, the character, benefits from the advances in cinematic technology that have accrued since 1978: this Superman seems to plausibly fly, at least. However, plot and character suffer the usual regressions so typical with recent big-budget Hollywood cinema. Don't bother seeing "Superman Returns" unless you have a personal vested interest -- and if you do, maybe you should reconsider your priorities.

The United States as a whole should probably reconsider its priorities. Hollywood wouldn't keep making "superhero" movies if Americans weren't so infantilized. It's one thing if you're 14 and want to see superhero movies; it's quite another when filmmakers take all this nonsense so seriously and produce such a somber document of pop culture. 9/11, it seems to me, has cut off this nation's collective balls. We've become a country of sniveling children, begging for Daddy to get us out of a jam. And since moviegoers appear to be too cowardly to deal with the depiction of real issues anymore, all of our fears and neuroses have been superimposed, by manipulative writers and directors, on our escapist summer fare. Every blockbuster must now be a treatise on the Human Condition. I actually like Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man" franchise, but he's guilty of the same practice. "Superman Returns" is almost as joyless as Ang Lee's misguided "Hulk" from a few years ago -- both are melodramatic weepies fraught with existential angst. Somber movies about heroes with godlike powers are the name of the post-9/11 game. Is it just me, or is anyone else saying, Oh my god, fuckin spare me -- it's SUPERMAN, for Christ's sake. And speaking of Christ, what's with the overt Christian symbolism going on in this film? A CGI-enhanced Brandon Routh hangs suspended as if on a crucifix in space. Superman is referred to as a "savior" 3 or 4 times during the film. Superman, floating omniscently in the air, listens to the multitudinous pleadings of humanity. During the screenplay's "crisis", Superman is given the Passion treatment by Lex Luthor's thugs: beaten and mocked. God ("Jor-El", as played by a posthumous Marlon Brando) tells the audience that he sent his only son to Earth for the benefit of mankind . . . Is this what you want from your comic-book movies?

Director Bryan Singer tries to please everyone in this rabidly political age, and, as would be expected, manages to aggravate everyone. Those who aren't Christian -- like Yours Fuckin Truly -- will be irritated by the intrusion of Christian iconography throughout the proceedings . . . and Christians will be irritated that the Christ stand-in banged a woman out of wedlock and fathered a bastard child. Conservatives in general will also have a bone to pick with the intentional leaving out of the "American Way" at the end of the phrase "Truth, Justice, and . . ."

By the way: since Superman is an alien, how can he reproduce with humans, anyway? Are Singer & Co. suggesting that it's all rather like horses and donkeys making a mule? And while we're nitpicking, since when does Lex Luthor want to kill "billions of people"? If I recall my Superman comics correctly, Luthor just wanted to get rich, the poor guy -- he was never a psychopath.

Whatever. Put it this way: a movie that gives Parker Posey absolutely nothing interesting to do is an ineptly-conceived movie.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

On Meryl Streep in "The Devil Wears Prada"

Our greatest living actress enjoys herself tremendously in this otherwise inconsequential remake of Nichols' "Working Girl" ("Prada" is based on a chick-lit novel whose author had clearly seen the 1988 film). One has to admire Streep's refusal to rest on her laurels. As always, she gives a complete performance -- nuanced, consistent, understated. Her "Miranda Priestly" is carefully constructed and laser-beam precise. She wastes nothing. Every gesture or inflection, no matter how slight, has been calculated far in advance. Clean and technical.

Presumably, the "Devil" in the title refers to Miranda, but Streep (and possibly the screenwriters, though I rather doubt it) refuses to make this character a farcical harridan or bitchy boss-lady. (Cf. Sigourney Weaver's character in "Working Girl".) This character reminds us more of an 18th century duchess, right down to the physical aspects -- regal white hair, haute couture, pale skin. She eventually comes across as an almost admirable existentialist, and in any case, it's rare in cinema -- or in life -- to find a character who takes their job this seriously. At one point in the film, Miranda demolishes the main character's disdain for all the fuss over High Fashion by pointing out the global consequences of this industry's activities: putting people to work; determining, in a sort of trickle-down manner, the very clothes we wear on our backs, and so forth. We're practically convinced.

However, it is likely that our affection for Streep, earned by decades of superb work, distorts our view of the character. It is such a joy to see a great performer getting it so consistently right that we're willing to go along with just about anything. We are seduced, the way we're seduced by a great actor playing Richard III or Iago. We root for the villain. We want Anne Hathaway's character to continue working for Miranda, instead of going back to her boring chef boyfriend and pursuing a dull career as a "serious" journalist. (I understand that in the novel the boyfriend is a teacher, but I guess that would've been even more boring, eh girls?) Finally, it occurs to us that this might be the first time that Streep has generated a truly iconic character, in the De Niro/Travis Bickle manner, the Leigh/Scarlett O'Hara manner, the Bridges/Jeff Lebowski manner. Because her performances have been so excellent over the years, it's easy to forget that she has rarely played titanic figures. Even her Sophie from "Sophie's Choice", or her Isak Dinesen from "Out of Africa", were more-or-less down-to-earth people. Miranda's little catch-phrase here -- "That is all", uttered almost sotto voce, accompanied by a dismissive wave of the fingers -- will likely become one of those great quotable movie lines comparable to "Am I clown? Do I amuse you?", "You talkin' to me?", or any number of others. Again, consistency is the key to such a gaudy conception. Streep, it will be noted, never raises her voice above the haughty monotone employed throughout, not even when, in a rather shocking moment, we see her without her Marquise de Merteuil mask of expertly applied make-up. Even when teary, Streep never lets Miranda -- or us -- down by getting all ghastly and womanly. A moment's regret, then back to business. Fictively and metafictively speaking, a master at work.