Superman Returns (PG-13)
When it was announced that Bryan Singer would be tackling the long-in-the-works big screen return of DC Comics icon Superman, both film and comic fan alike eagerly anticipated what he would come up with--after all, this is the same filmmaker who was able to make mainstream-accessible, cinematic sense of what is arguably the most complex conventional superhero mythos, that of the X-Men. But those walking into Superman Returns to be uniquely "Bryan Singer's Superman" will be let down as this is more or less the sequel that 1978 Superman director Richard Donner was never allowed to complete.
This is, of course, not necessarily a bad thing, as Donner's film (and, for the most part, the 1980-81 Donner/Richard Lester hybrid sequel Superman II) treated Joe Siegel and Jerry Shuster's historic creation with the respect due any literary character with such enduring appeal, not with campy condescension just because of its comic book origins. The familiar, lengthy, outer space-set main title sequence scored to the still-stirring John Williams theme announce this film as being firmly in line with those first two films, and so goes the whole of Superman Returns--extremely close to, if not downright aping, the originals. After a five-year absence from earth that began shortly after the events of II (1983's disastrous Richard Pryor co-starring vehicle III and the unspeakable 1987 abomination IV: The Quest for Peace are mercifully erased from the timeline), Superman/Kal-El/Clark Kent (Brandon Routh) once again comes crashing down to Earth, specifically at his mother's (Eva Marie Saint) farm in Smallville. Clark soon returns to Metropolis, the offices of the Daily Planet and, hence, the world of his true love Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth)--but she is now not only engaged to editor Perry White's (Frank Langella) nephew Richard (James Marsden, getting far more screen time here than he did in the sadly Singer-less X-Men: The Last Stand), but she also has a young son (Tristan Lake Leabu).
But those changes sound far more radical on paper than they do in execution, as from beginning to end (there's even the classic capper of Supes flying above earth), top to bottom, the tone, the style, the look (many of John Barry's original sets are reflected in Guy Hendrix Dyas' production design), the feel is Donner through and through. While the attention to consistency is remarkable--writers Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris pepper the script with a number of detailed references to those first two films--one cannot help but wish that Singer took a more distinctive spin on the material. He does introduce some God/Jesus/savior allegorical ideas that point to how creative yet intelligent and respectful he has proven to be in the past with comic book material, but those intriguing (if a bit obvious) interests take a clear back seat to paying near-slavish homage to Donner, whose most distinctive strength is his anonymous, workmanlike precision.
That latter description also kind of extends to Routh. He does a completely competent job here, even if it's quite obvious he probably was cast more for his look (Christopher Reeve meets Mark Steines) than anything else. (His voice, on the other hand, is rather disturbingly close to Tom Cruise.) That said, the jury is still out as to if he'll be a star or any good outside of these films--unlike Singer's last great find, Hugh Jackman, who in his first scenes in the original 2000 X-Men instantly announced him as a movie star, period, and not merely a star when playing the legendary character. But for now, for the purposes of this re-introduction film, his impeccable Reeve impersonation will do. Bosworth's Lois is similarly competent though her youthful appearance--even younger than her actual 23 years--makes her somewhat difficult to reconcile with Margot Kidder's brassier take in the first two films. The one cast member--nay, the one prominent member of the whole team--to bring something fairly freshly his own to the table is Kevin Spacey. While his Lex Luthor does pick up from the madcap vein of Gene Hackman's original portrayal, he brings some of his own darker edges to the part. For the first time in a major Superman feature, Luthor is both amusingly wacky and a believably sinister threat to the Man of Steel. The Hackman versus Spacey comparison can be summed up thusly: Hackman uses a Kryptonite block, but Spacey wields a Kryptonite shiv.
The film as a whole could have used a little more of that type of ferocious instinct, as in terms of an adventure Returns pulls out its action showstopper very early--too early--with a spectacular jet plane rescue (a sequence that should be especially phenomenal on IMAX 3-D) and then coasts its way toward its fairly low-key whisper of a conclusion. What goes on between is never boring--and how could it not be, what with the state-of-the-art effects; lavish set and production design (no mystery where the money in the megabucks budget went here); Spacey's Luthor hamming and sniping with new female sidekick Kitty Kowalski (a wonderfully dry Parker Posey); and the kick of seeing the Man of Steel simply do his Super-thing using his heat vision, cooling breath, and superhuman strength--but just when you clamor for Supes and Singer to deliver a knockout rush of blockbuster excitement, they instead settle for being merely entertaining. While that is enough to make Superman Returns an agreeable summertime diversion, it cannot help but be a bit of a let down given not so much the studio-manufactured hype (though that does count) but the anticipation by fans over the years.
Waist Deep (R)
In his film's rather effective initial stages, director/co-writer Vondie Curtis Hall takes the title Waist Deep to heart, wasting no time--foregoing a single title card, even--throwing paroled con Otis, a.k.a. "O2" (Tyrese Gibson) into a precarious situation: his young son Otis Jr. (H. Hunter Hall) is taken from him in a big, energetically staged daylight street chase/shootout. The stage is thus simply, efficiently set for a gritty, hard action thriller with a capable hero leading the charge. If only Hall were content with making a lean, mean action thriller, as he and his film soon find themselves waist deep and in over their head in pretentious ambition.
Joining O2 for his mission to get his son back, initially reluctantly but ultimately as full-fledged partner-in-crime (in the most literal sense) is street hustler Coco (Meagan Good). When Junior's kidnapper, crime boss Meat (The Game), demands $100,000 for his freedom, O2 and Coco go on a bank-robbing spree to raise the cash. The heist scenes are good fun (and gives Good, in her first major league lead, a rare chance to cut loose), but like the energetic action beats these more engaging, if formulaic, aspects are of less concern to Hall than a rather heavy-handed anti-violence message. It's a noble aim to have in a genre riddled with trigger-happy, violence-glorifying stereotype, and every now and again the message comes through effectively: the juxtaposition of O2's slacker cousin (Larenz Tate) being beaten at the same site as an anti-violence rally, the assembled crowd unaware of what's going on literally under their noses; and, best of all, a scene in which O2 and Coco lay bare the tragedy and pain in their pasts. But a subdued, haunting, memorable scene like that is the exception rather than the rule as some already less-than-subtle background news references to Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa cracking down on crime but eventually build to some sledgehammer speechifying.
The frustration grows as the whole "escape from the hood for a better and safer life" theme takes more and more precedence over the admittedly derivative but far more effectively done aspects. The light amusement of the "Bonnie and Clyde" angle soon dissipates (and one rather forced, late-in-film joke that appears in the trailer doesn't help), and even the bread-and-butter chases and gunplay lose their luster and urgency; the ultimate showdown with Meat is so abrupt and anticlimactic as if to be a mere afterthought. Through it all, though, the cast does make the most of what they're given. Gibson shows a solid future as a hard action lead (and there is an opening now that Wesley Snipes has sadly been consigned to the direct-to-DVD dustbins); Good, freed from the token sexy girl trap that usually confines her, smoothly juggles the comedic and dramatic duties; the ever-dependable Tate lends credibility to a fairly thankless part (when will he get another crack at a lead role like he deserves?); and in his surprisingly scant screen time, The Game oozes appropriate menace. The one exception would be the junior Hall, the director's son, who sadly doesn't display the natural performing instincts of either his father or mother, Kasi Lemmons.
But all the good will generated by the appealing lead duo and the few effective action sequences is all but wiped away by a wholly expected but no less cheeseball coda. No spoilers here, but its sticky sweetness is so extreme that it nearly plays as surreal parody--particularly in a film that, for most of its run time, obviously strives to address some sort of truth about the harsh, real world.
A workaholic family man (Adam Sandler) comes into possession of a remote control that is universal in the most literal sense: the device allows him to pause, rewind, fast forward, even picture-in-picture his life. The expected Sandler juvenalia ensues, such as the trailer moments of slow-mo'ing the bountiful, bouncing breasts on a comely jogger and pausing to move a rude kid's catching arm so he could get hit in the face with a ball, as well as unrelated, grotesque crudeness such as his family dog's incessant urge to hump an oversized plush duck toy. As is what has become the Sandler norm, such crudeness co-exists with schmaltz, as his put-upon wife (a wasted Kate Beckinsale, spending most of the film wearing sleepwear short-shorts) and his parents (Henry Winkler and Julie Kavner) constantly nag him about the importance of family over work.
And so one braces oneself for the inevitable sap-soaked conclusion, but no amount of preparation can steel one enough for the rather flabbergasting turn the film takes in its final third. Director Frank Coraci's "movie" (as the credits pointedly state, as opposed to "film") ventures far beyond the expected touchy-feely hugs-'n-healing into a mass of old age makeup and balls-out, would-be Oscar clip emoting by the erstwhile Waterboy himself. The most devout Sandler devotees would be hard-pressed to honestly call him a terribly rangy actor, and the maudlin muck of the final stretch would be a challenge to sell with a seasoned dramatic actor, let alone someone who has never possessed any sort of emotional pulse on screen like Sandler. While I've never been a fan of his particular brand of humor, if the alternative is suffering through him struggle mightily to convey angst over lost moments with his dad is, bring on the "comical" outbursts of violence, tiresome "You can do it!" callbacks, and Rob Schneider cameos.
The Devil Wears Prada (PG-13)
Make no mistake--this is a chick flick all right: (1) the setting is the world of high fashion; (2) one dowdy Plain Jane's makeover into a glam gal is central to the plot; (3) a demanding, designer dud-donning diva is the devil of the title. But the third point is the very reason why this film would work for men and simply works in general: Meryl Streep's masterful performance as fashion magazine editor-in-chief Miranda Priestly, whose icy hauteur and acidic condescension makes for a most irresistible injection of venom into what would otherwise be a typically sugary Anne Hathaway Princess Diaries installment. Hathaway's latest everygirl-makes-good avatar is wannabe writer Andrea "Andy" Sachs, a mousy, walking fashion faux pas who gets more than she bargained for when she becomes second assistant for monstrous Miranda. After much bitchy belittling, cue the haute couture makeover for Andy, not only in a aesthetic but also an attitudinal sense, as she soons finds herself nipping at the heels of Miranda's high-strung first assistant (Emily Blunt) and her new time-consuming career also consuming her personal life. That's all well and bland, even with Hathaway giving what is perhaps her first unannoying performance ever (and, yes, I include her bewigged Brokeback Mountain turn as one of said infractions), so leave it to Streep to exponentially elevate the proceedings with a terrifically shaded turn that goes beyond the bitchery; one can see how Miranda uses the glacial snootiness as a defensive suit of armor as well as how Miranda, however abrasive as she can be, is able to command admiration and respect, even fierce loyalty, with her stern professionalism. Of course, it doesn't hurt that Streep can drop biting zingers with exacting Swiss clock precision. Further adding to the flavor are a nicely understated Stanley Tucci as a no-nonsense longtime colleague of Miranda's and scene-stealing up-and-comer Blunt, who dominates the screen whenever she shares it with Hathaway--a feat that would Miranda make proud.
The Omen (R)
John Moore's 30th anniversary take on Richard Donner's 1976 chiller is a remake in the most literal sense, taking just barely enough liberties with the original to keep it out of Van Sant shot-by-shot territory. (In fact, the on-screen screenplay credit is "written by" original writer David Seltzer, with no one credited for adaptation.) But as is the case of any virtual carbon copy, this version isn't quite as sharp. This is not to say that there aren't some virtues on display in the 6.6.06 version, foremost being Liev Schreiber's most admirable job of filling Gregory Peck's shoes as Robert Thorn, an American ambassador in the UK whose adopted son Damien (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) could very well be the Antichrist; Schreiber lends the film some grounding emotional authenticity as it ventures more and more into supernatural and fantastic. Moore also deserves some credit for the inspired casting of Mia Farrow as Damien's nanny Mrs. Baylock; Farrow wraps her character's shady intentions with a sticky-sweet, sing-song exterior that makes the character all the more creepy. Making Damien's parents younger (Julia Stiles fills Lee Remick's original role as Robert's wife Katherine) is an especially effective adjustment, as the horrors of Damien now resonate more strongly as an allegory for the horrors of young, first-time parenthood.
On the whole, however, Moore falls short, though to be charitable some of the film's problems were beyond his help. The loaded casting of Peck in the original film was a stroke of genius and luck, as the Atticus Finch baggage of his traditional on-screen persona added a deeper, more unsettling undercurrent to the film, particularly its climax; there is no comparable contemporary star whose presence would've had the same effect, however well Schreiber does here. In sticking so close to the original, the role of Katherine is just as thankless as it is in the first film, leaving Stiles as stranded and underused as Remick was. Also, the idea of an evil, demonic child is far less fresh after seeing brats routinely raise hell in both horror films and comedies raise hell the past three decades. However, places where Moore attempts to put his stamp on the proceedings don't compare, such as the far less tense editing of the climax to, more crucially, his direction of young Davey-Fitzpatrick. Where Donner had his young star, Harvey Stephens, play Damien fairly straight for the most part, Moore has Davey-Fitzpatrick make evil eyes to the other actors and the camera, making for a wink-wink quality that undercuts any attempts at scariness.
Amos Gitai's drama gets off to an arresting start: a long, single take close-up of Natalie Portman's remarkably espressive face as she weeps uncontrollably--in so doing effectively and rather efficiently placing the viewer intimately into the mindset and emotional state of the character. But it ultimately proves to be wasted energy as the film gradually reveals itself not to be about Portman's Rebecca, an American whom we learn just broke off her engagement while on a trip in Israel, but about the Israeli taxi driver (Hanna Laslo) ushering her around Jordan and a Palestinian woman (Hiam Abbass) with whom the driver has some business difficulties. Of course, much arguing and speechifying ensue, serving as a heavy-handed metaphor for the neverending Mideast conflicts, and Portman and the audience are stranded in the middle, on the outside looking in, with nothing to do and patience increasingly wearing thin. Laslo and Abbass do what they can, but the bickering quickly becomes one-note--no doubt part of Gitai's intended statement, but that doesn't exactly make for scintillating cinema.