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Friday, July 19

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Superman Returns

The most difficult part of this review will be not getting lost in all the history of this franchise or the long road taken to get Superman Returns made. No, the hardest part about writing this one will be not getting lost in how much the 1978 Superman changed my life. The Richard Donner-directed masterpiece may have been the first film I ever completely obsessed over. I knew/know all the dialog, found all the plot holes through repeated viewings, marveled at the then-state-of-the-art special effects, and desperately tried to understand why Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman got top billing over the unknown actor who played the Man of Steel (I was young, what did I know about billing?). Time and study has revealed all to me over the years, and upon rewatching the first two Superman movies again recently (since this new version has been said to pick up five years after the second film), I now appreciate how epic and wonderful the first film is and how underwhelming Superman II is to me now, despite my childhood memory of it being the best of them all.

At the time of writing this review, I've seen Superman Returns four times, the final time being the stellar, partially 3-D IMAX version. The first time watching director Bryan Singer's utterly faithful rendering of the Superman character (perfectly inhabited by newcomer Brandon Routh) and legend, I was deeply entranced and touched watching Singer recreate (but not re-imagine, thank god) the universe these characters inhabit: Metropolis (no longer a stand-in for New York City, but close), the Arctic-located Fortress of Solitude, and the Kent family farm in Smallville, Kansas. I also loved searching for and usually finding the little things that Singer has carried over from Donner's work: Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) is still a terrible speller and smokes on occasion; Clark Kent still can't negotiate a revolving door and still loves the word "swell."This is the Superman I grew up loving. Rather than change everything, Singer adds to it in ways that I couldn't help but be in awe of the first time through.

The second viewing, I was determined to actually judge the movie as a movie, as an entertainment machine for people not as familiar or enthused about Superman. I found myself even more drawn in by Singer's take on these familiar characters and themes. Superman has been missing from the world for five years after astronomers believed they have found remnants of his homeworld Krypton. Using the spacecraft he was sent to Earth in as an infant (which is apparently reusable), Superman leaves his adoptive home to find out something about who he is. Singer never misses an opportunity to cast Superman as the outsider, the man alone; earthlings love him, but that doesn't make him one of them. Although he doesn't approach the darkness of, say, the Batman, Superman is far more brooding, contemplative and desperate for love than we've seen him before on film. There's almost an indication that he performs his heroic deeds because the adoration of the people fuels him. He can't help but smile at the TV reports of his crime- and disaster-stopping ways.

Assuming that the film takes place in the present day, Superman being gone from the world for five years also implies (although it's never specifically said) that he wasn't here to stop the events of 9-11 from happening or the war that followed. (A similar device was used in the last James Bond movie.) Upon his return to Earth, he spends some time with his mother Martha (Eva Marie Saint) on the farm, remembering more innocent peaceful times as a young boy when he was just discovering his powers. These are moments we never saw in the first Superman (the Clark Kent we see here in flashbacks is younger than the high schooler in Donner's film), and they are simply beautiful.

But the stuff most people care about begins with Clark's return to Metropolis and to his old job at the Daily Planet. It doesn't take long for him to see how much things have changed. Lois has a young son and a fiancé (X-Men's James Marsden), Richard White, nephew of Planet editor Perry White (Frank Langella). And on his first day back in town, Superman already has a catastrophic event to deal with: the crash landing of a plane full of reporters, including Lois. Holy living crap, I can't wait to see this sequence in 3D. With the full power of CGI and infinitely better blue screen technology, Singer cuts loose on showing us just how agile and powerful Superman truly is. His strength, speed, and heat vision are all on full display in this sequence, and it will melt your mind how cool it is.

The flip side of this equation is the story of Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) and his gang of henchmen. Spacey's Luthor is still playful like Gene Hackman, but he's far more menacing and dangerous, less of a jester. In other words, he's as evil as they come, and his King-of-the-World plan to essentially grow a continent in the Atlantic Ocean using crystals stolen from Superman's Fortress of Solitude is as ingenious as it is impractical. (If you drown billions of people by growing a new land mass, who would be left to actually purchase your real estate? And Al Gore thinks global warming is a problem!) And I found it fascinating that Luthor once again (as he did in the first two films) devises an evil scheme that involves creating valuable real estate where once there was none. Blessedly, Luthor's supporting cast is not all about broad humor and dumb jokes, although the casting of Parker Posey as his assistant, Kitty Kowalski, comes close sometimes. I did find it strange that Luthor's technical wizard is played by Kal Penn (Kumar of Harold and Kumar fame); not only is he not called upon to be funny, he also isn't given a single line in the film.

In one of the film's most talked about and fascinating scenes, Luthor and his crew must travel to the Fortress of Solitude to gather the crystals. Lex stands before the control panel where the younger Clark stood years earlier to learn all about who is really is. The face of Superman's real father, Jor-El (Brando himself, resurrected and god-like), appears to provide whoever is watching with information on any subject. Luthor utters the spine-chilling line, "Tell me everything, starting with the crystals."

If you thought it was tedious that we don't even see Superman in costume until about an hour into the first Superman, don't be too freaked out that Superman and Luthor don't actually come face to face until the top of hour two in Superman Returns. But when they meet, their battle is sensational and brutal. And I enjoyed the way Singer incorporates most of his major characters into the final scenes. Richard's skills as a pilot come in handy; Lois never forgets that she's a journalist and uses her investigative skills to track down Luthor (albeit inadvertently); and her son... well, he helps out, too. No one is left just standing around waiting to be a hapless victim waiting to get saved or taken down.

Today's world is a place in which nearly every news event is captured on amateur video tape or on someone's camera phone, and this fact isn't lost in this film. This is also a world desperate for someone to fly in and save it, and while that will never happen in the real world, it's nice to know there are places where a savior to all humankind exists. On more than one occasion, Singer shows us Superman hovering over Earth, listening to every single sound coming from it just so he can single out those voices in need of help. Superman floats in space, arms slightly extended, brow furrowed, cape billowing around him like a red aura. Never on film has he seemed more Christ-like (the tortured only son of a white-haired disembodied figure who apparently has infinite knowledge? Come on), and it suits him. At the same time, Superman has never seemed more human. He relentlessly comes on to Lois, stalks her a little, and practically begs her to leave Richard and be with him. But a part of us (and him and her) knows this can probably never be, and you actually feel kind of sorry for the man who can do everything but not have what he truly wants.

As good as all of the actors are here, let's face it: the film lives or dies on Routh's performance. Some will say that he's the embodiment of Christopher Reeve's portrayal of Superman, but this isn't entirely true. He does resemble him, I'll give you that, and there are times while he's playing Clark Kent that it scared me how much he acting and sounded like the late actor. But when he reveals the blue costume and red accessories, he's his own man. This is not the same Superman of your youth, and I'm not completely sure I can explain why. He's more mature. The trip to find the remains of Krypton has changed him, hardened him significantly. He's still a genuinely good and kind person, but he gets lost in his own mind and shadowed thoughts more often, and Routh adds a subtle and necessary weight to the proceedings.

Superman Returns is the finest and most well-rounded film about superheroes ever made. This is a film that doesn't skimp on the action, but also bothers to take the time to develop and grow its characters. To those who say the film is flawed or that they were disappointed, I say that you need to remind yourself what made the original Superman so important. It wasn't just the behavior and actions of the super-powered beings, it was the way the rest of the world incorporated them into the culture. When Singer directed the first two X-Men movies, he put a great deal of emphasis on how the world's mutants are feared and hated by most. Here, Superman is revered and loved, something the lonely Clark Kent desperately needs, but he's still very much alone in the world. Superman Returns isn't simply good, it's damn near perfect, and it gets better with repeated viewings.

The Devil Wears Prada

Every so often a film comes around that I think I have zero interest in seeing, but some aspect of the offering makes me curious about it. The "aspect"in The Devil Wears Prada is Meryl Streep, and while she alone doesn't make this film fun and highly digestible, her whispering whirlwind of a performance as fictional Runway magazine editor Miranda Priestly makes the film well worth seeing.

What I recall hearing about author Lauren Weisberger's 2003 novel was that it was in no way a parody of the fashion industry but more of a warts-and-all look at the world of fashion publishing, based on her experiences as assistant to Vogue editor Anna Wintour. Anne Hathaway (Brokeback Mountain, The Princess Diaries) stars as the wide-eyed, ideals-driven Andrea Sachs, a Northwestern journalism school grad (Go Cats!) who eventually wants to have a career as a "serious"writer for magazines like Vanity Fair, but is smart enough to realize that in order to make the connections necessary to get a job like that, becoming an assistant (more of a virtual slave) to Priestly is a necessary evil. Her fashion sense is non-existent, and her co-workers never miss an opportunity to mock her every sweater choice. I spent a lot of this film waiting for the scene in which Miranda explains why she selected Andrea as an assistant, but that scene never happens. Did Miranda see a spark in Andrea? Or did she see a woman who thought she was better than the job and the profession, and wanted an opportunity to knock Andrea down a few pegs? I like that the answer is never clearcut.

Every time Streep's performance seems in danger of being one-note, she pulls off a scene that reveals the cracks or strengths in her character. Without raising her voice once, Miranda is the most feared woman in fashion. Her choices as editor make Runway not only the most expensive book in the publishing company to print, but the most respected in the fashion world. Through Andrea, we not only get a tour of fashion but of the publishing world, and that's what sets this film apart. Models and designers and tyrant bosses are easy targets that this film largely avoids going after. Of course we get the obligatory makeover music montage, but in this story, Andrea's makeover actually has a purpose. She realizes that she spent so much time thinking she was better than her job, she found herself underperforming. The makeover (with the help of Miranda's right-hand man played by the miraculous Stanley Tucci) is more of a raid of Runway's samples closets, and Andrea's transformation is more than just an attempt to make her look good; it's a self-promotion.

Unfortunately, the job and attitude change takes its toll on Andrea's personal life, especiall with boyfriend (Adrian Grenier). As funny as the trailer for The Devil Wears Prada is, the film isn't really a comedy. I particularly liked the scenes of Miranda and Andrea in Paris to attend and host various fashion events. There's a scene in which Miranda reveals that she and her husband are getting a divorce. It's the only time we see Miranda vulnerable, and the way she eventually swallows her hurt and tears in that scene is heartbreaking. Streep plays the scene beautifully. She knows Miranda is a woman who has put career first, even at the expense of family and meaningful friendships. She is the embodiment of the price some women pay to be at the top of their game. I would be remiss if I did not single out Tucci as giving one of his best performances. I'd wrongfully assumed his role would be nothing more than comic relief. Instead he adds some depth to what could have been a very shallow portrayal as Nigel, the man so devoted and in tune with Miranda that she may never let him branch him out on his own.

Director David Frankel deftly maneuvers from the office and runway to the smallish apartment occupied by Andrea and her boyfriend. Andrea becomes what she beholds, and her hopping from one world to another nearly ruins her life while opening doors to career choices beyond her imagination. As much as The Devil Wears Prada is about the inner workings of a business built on telling the rest of the world how to dress and look, the scenes that work best are the ones in which we see how Andrea's job gradually chips away at the rest of her life. The frumpy, ill-dressed girl from Northwestern becomes barely visible under all the makeup and stylish garbs. There's more going on in this film than you might think. For a movie destined to bring in "Sex and the City"crowd, it has a sharp, smart approach to its story and characters. The film manages avoid about 90 percent of the stereotypes and caricatures of the fashion world, while showing us just that a subtle tongue lashing can be just as constructive and informative as any employee handbook.

Russian Dolls

One of the most accessible of all contemporary French writer-directors is Cedric Klapisch, who has delighted (and I don't use that word often) audiences with his flighty but wildly entertaining human comedies When the Cats Away and Un Air de Famille. Perhaps the most famous film of his works is the 2002 ensemble L'Auberge Espagnole (The Spanish Apartment), about a collection of young Europeans living in a Barcelona dwelling and sharing their lives, loves and fears with each other. Klapisch's not-so-subtle intention was to use the group as a metaphor for the European Union, but that didn't stop the film from being a fun and original romp.

Set five years after that film, Russian Dolls gathers up the original cast members for something that resembles a sequel, but in reality is a follow-up that shows how these men and women have (or haven't) grown up and moved on. Romain Duris returns and assumes the lead as Xavier, the still-struggling writer who continues close friendships with the two French women from the old apartment, the lesbian Isabelle (Cecile De France) and his ex-girlfriend Martine (Audrey Tautou), who now has a young son and often relies on Xavier to babysit while she attempts to restart a personal life. Gone are the days of bumming around Spain; today, these now 30-somethings must make a living and get somewhat serious about their relationships.

Xavier runs into another old flatmate, the Brit Wendy (Kelly Reilly) entangled in an abusive relationship. The two manage to find a writing project to work on together, and the seeds of what might be the healthiest romance either has been in for a while are planted. Their pal William (Kevin Bishop) has been spending the last few years wooing a Russian ballerina named Natacha (Evguenya Obraztsova), and the pair are planning to get married in St. Petersburg, giving the old Barcelona crew a chance for a full-fledged reunion.

Russian Dolls maintains the wonderful, lightweight feel of the first film, but it also provides us comfort in knowing that most of these lives are in a good place when the film ends. Like catching up with old friends, Russian Dolls provides comfort as well as entertainment. It works as a series of strong lessons on growing up (a little bit), while remaining sexy, fast-paced and filled with big laughs. Most importantly, I don't think you need to have seen the original film for Russian Dolls to work for you. It stands on its own, but also provides you with an excellent excuse to rent the original. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

Wassup Rockers

It's a little too easy to categorize writer-director-photographer Larry Clark (Kids, Bully) as a middle-age man obsessed with the lives (and often the sex lives) of young people under the legal age limit to drink, have sex or even drive. Clark's films are filled with the shocking accounts of the actions — sometimes deviant, usually dangerous — of teens who either live like they think they will live forever or don't care whether they live to see the next day.

Clark's latest, Wassup Rockers, manages to be something different while still staying on topic. Here, Clark's lens falls upon Hispanic youths living in South Central Los Angeles. These particular kids stand out perhaps more than any other in their high school. The are essentially skater kids who listen to and play skater punk rock, wear tight pants, and have long, shaggy hair. They are often picked on by the black kids at school, who berate them for not conforming to the gangsta lifestyle, fashion or music trends. They are also fiercely loyal and protective of each other. Clark hung out with this group of kids for a year before attempting to tell their story and casting them (non-actors all) to play themselves.

The film opens with the de facto leader Jonathon (Jonathon Velasquez) speaking to the camera as if being interviewed. He speaks in a monotone, but somehow it makes his power of his words hit harder. He details various stories about himself and his crew, some funny, some painful. Although the script is credited to Clark, it becomes clear that the first half of the film is a barely fictionalized account of events that actually happened to these kids. One boy attempts suicide by submerging his head in a sink full of water. It seems funny until you realize he really doesn't understand that you can't drown yourself in the sink.

We follow the group of genuinely nice kids as they knock about in and out of school. They drink and talk about sex, even the ones who are still virgins. Eventually the group ends up at a skate park in Beverly Hills, where something resembling a plot begins to take shape as they get harassed by the police, hit on by two curious white girls, and beaten up by the girls' male friends and relations. The boys are forced to make their way through the back yards of various mansions in the Hills, stumbling upon the strangest and most bizarre people and gatherings. Clark gets his chance in these scenes to unload on the freakish nature of Hollywood parties, fashion glitteratti, and poseurs in general. Look for a self-effacing cameo by one-time supermodel and current reality show star Janice Dickinson.

By dialing back the sex and violence, Wassup Rockers becomes Clark's most accessible work and his most affectionate toward his subjects. He clearly has a great deal of admiration for these kids and gives them all a chance to shine in the film. With names like Kico, Spermball and Porky, how could you not love them? The film is filled with slice-of-life accounts that move gracefully from being scary to funny to outright heartbreaking. There is a sense that these kids, despite all that life has piled up against them, want so much more out of their lives, and they will do what is necessary to make their lives as fun as possible until that day comes. With a pounding punk rock soundtrack and an electric cast, Wassup Rockers is a loving and lovable character study about people whose lives never make it to the big screen, and clearly deserve to. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Clean

The last time French writer-director Olivier Assayas (Demonlover) and Hong Kong superstar Maggie Cheung (In the Mood for Love, 2046, Hero) teamed up, the result was the haunting, sexy, visual stunner Irma Vep. Several years later, this formidable duo has made another highly effective work, the woman-on-the-verge drama Clean.

Here, Cheung plays Emily Wang, the bitchy wife and drug buddy of would-be singer-songwriter Lee (James Johnston). I say "would-be"because if the guy would just kick his heroin addiction, he would be a much greater and more popular artist. Instead, Lee overdoses in a motel room in Hamilton, Ontario, from drugs Emily tracked down for him. Emily goes to jail for her indiscretion, leaving her young son Jay (James Dennis) in the loving care of Lee's parents, Albrecht and Rosemary (Nick Nolte and Martha Henry). The courts and Lee's parents make it clear that Jay will remain in their care until Emily cleans up her act. She bounces between Paris and London trying to find herself, and although she seems to have her drug problem under control, she finds it difficult to settle down and set up a life into which she can bring her son. Emily seems perpetually melancholy, as she struggles to overcome the sorrow of being without Lee.

Beatrice Dalle (Betty Blue) is on hand as Elena, an old friend who lets Emily move in and offers her at least one promising career option as a singer. Perhaps the film's strangest and nicest surprise is the cameo by musician/producer David Roback (Mazzy Star), who works with Emily on some of the most gut-wrenching (I mean this in the best possible way) music you're likely to hear all year.

Pay particular attention to the decidedly quiet and subdued tone Nolte gives his role. He decides not to pass judgment on Emily, choosing to recognize that a son should be with his mother, and offering her every opportunity to prove she can be a proper mother to Jay. This is probably the most purely decent character I've ever seen Nolte play, and he does it convincingly without seeming weak. Clean is a film that quietly shakes you up thanks to Cheung's absolutely dead-on performance as a woman in barely controlled crisis mode in desperate need of a life overhaul, for her own sake and that of her son. In the hands of another actress, Emily would be easier to dismiss. But Cheung makes us care about her and become desperate to see her succeed. The film is an emotional drain, but one that is well worth the pain. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Only Human

Maybe Spain isn't the first country you'd look to for a film about Jewish-Arab relations, but welcome to the sometimes-uproarious, often-tedious Only Human, in which a Jewish woman brings home her Palestinian fiancé to dinner. Norma Aleandro and Guillermo Toledo star as the young couple in this hit-and-miss film that sometimes registers on the comedy meter at about "Woody Allen,"while never missing an opportunity to play on a "Three's Comedy" level any chance it gets. Despite the weighty subject matter, the film comes across as lightweight and a little ham-fisted in its approach, which doesn't stop it from being funny on occasion.

I particularly liked Aleandro's brother, who only recently has decided to become orthodox, which makes Toledo's appearance in the house all the more problematic. The various family members are forced to consider their feelings about race, religion, culture, and love, which would have made a terrific subject for a film on its own, but Only Human decides to toss in silly sideplots involving a possible dead body in the parking lot of the family's apartment building and concerns that the family patriarch is having an affair. These stories don't increase the chances of enjoying the main story, and I question strongly why they are a part of this film. If anything, they distract to the point where I can't quite recommend the film. If co-writers-directors Dominic Harari and Teresa De Pelegri had simply stuck to the goings-on inside the apartment, the film might have amounted to a claustrophobic family dramedy with substance. Instead we get cheap laughs, shallow discussions of serious subjects, and lots and lots of yelling and over-emoting. A worthy try, Only Human falls well short of its intentions and any level of being truly enjoyable.

Loverboy

"Grating" does not even begin to describe Kevin Bacon's second outing as a director. This little kidney stone of a movie might feature the single worst performance by an actress I normally adore — Bacon's sexy wife Kyra Sedgwick — along with a slew of impressive actors in ultimately wasted cameos. But the film's biggest flaw is the portrayal of its lead character, an unstable single mother, who thinks that dragging her child around from town to town, living in a fantasy world the two have invented is healthier than sending him to school to interact and play with other children. Bacon wants us to feel something for this woman, even if it is only pity. Instead I wanted to slap her silly and turn her in to social services.

The six or seven people in the universe who even bother to see this movie will probably expect something of quality from a cast that includes Matt Dillon, Oliver Platt, Campbell Scott, Blair Brown, Sandra Bullock, Marisa Tomei and even Bacon. But Sedgwick's Emily is so possessive and emotionally fractured that the only thought that passed through my mind was "Get that boy away from her." The boy in question is six-year-old Paul (Dominic Scott Kay), the result of a deliberately anonymous one-night stand (his mother did not want a father figure in the picture, but still wanted the father of her child to be a nice guy). I'm sure Emily raised Paul thinking she was looking out for him and being protective, but what she does here borders on child abuse to the point where she begins to sabotage any attempts on Paul's part to try something outside the home... like school. Emily meets any acts of kindness by neighbors or friendly strangers with distrust and aggression. Paul catches on early that his mother isn't like other mothers and he is not being raised like other kids, and his resentment builds exponentially.

Flashbacks to Emily's childhood reveal some of the reasons for her outrageous behavior (her swinger parents are played up to a ridiculous degree by Bacon and Tomei), and the way her parents leave her when she's still young offers up neon-bright foreshadowing as to Emily's behavior later in the film. Nothing about Loverboy (based on the novel by Victoria Redel) is subtle or easy to watch. The film's most interesting character is Mark (Dillon), the only man who might actually break Emily out of her shell as a love interest. But he is quickly disposed of, and his impact on the family never registers. By the time we make it to what I guess is supposed to be a chilling and harrowing conclusion, I'd already lost interest in the family and couldn't care less whether they live or die. As I was watching this film I kept thinking perhaps death would have been a mercy for these two; it certainly would have been for me.

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for nearly 20 years, Steve writes about everything but movies at his day job for a trade journal publishing company. Using the alias Capone, he has been the Chicago Editor for Ain't It Cool News since 1998, and has been writing film reviews since he was a wee lad of 14, growing up in Maryland. Direct your questions or comments to .

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