December 21, 2006

The Good Shepherd

Robert De Niro's first directorial effort since A Bronx Tale in 1993, The Good Shepherd purports to be "the untold story of the birth of the CIA." It is actually an interminable series of only loosely related scenes about characters that we don't much care about doing horrible things we don't much care about either. By the time the only character with any personality arrives on screen, played by a seemingly ancient Joe Pesci, my mind was screaming "why God why isn't this movie over yet?"
Matt Damon plays Edward Wilson, a man with an unreadable poker face and the barest minimum of personality. He is smart, of affluent upbringing, with very little sense of humour. Perfect for international espionage. Not so perfect for carrying a three hour journey that spends too long saying too little. Only one character gets him to crack the slightest smile. She gets less than five minutes of the total running time. He's smart, he's unreadable. I get it. I'm bored now.
As a fresh inductee to Yale's Order of Skull and Bones, he knocks up a senator's daughter and thus is obliged to marry her. We get the obligatory scenes of her complaining that he's never home and never shares anything with her. They son is a complete tool, constantly a day late and a dollar short. It's a dysfunctional family, but not in a particularly unique or interesting way. He's a shitty family man. We get it. We got it the first time. Quit repeating yourself.
The espionage elements are only mildly more interesting, and considerably less focused. I kept waiting for all the divergent story lines to come together in a fascinating and worthwhile way, but no. By the time the movie ends, I didn't care anymore. Whatever I was going to get out of it, I'd already long figured out anyway. Was it that he betrayed the United State of America during the Bay of Pigs to protect his son? Then why'd they kill his son's fiancé anyway? The answer is that after the 150 minute mark, I was entirely focused on the exits.
Never before have I seen a movie so pointlessly bloated with so little to say. Every whiff of promise is relentlessly stomped out as soon as possible. Michael Gambon's sexually deviant professorial spymaster ends up a floater. Joe Pesci's mobster is in and out after one scene, with nothing particularly resulting from it. William Hurt's leadership character, who isn't even that interesting, goes out in a perfunctory web of intrigue that wasn't really elaborated on. Never have I seen a collection of professionally shot and acted scenes so utterly fail to build and expand on each other. They're all free floating islands, which means every cut has to build its momentum fresh. It makes the running time — did I mention the movie is three hours long? — feel much more epic than it otherwise would have.
And what did the movie ultimately have to say about the CIA? It was founded by rich white boys from secret societies whose mistakes affected the history books. There's a big surprise. What a waste of a night. With a different script and a different editor, they might have had something here. ()

  - ADAM LENHARDT

September 28, 2006

The Guardian

The Guardian is really three movies. The first has the makings of a great film, full of drama and suspense and a first-person perspective of a dangerous and heroic job many of us — until Katrina at least — had never really thought about. The second is a fun if formulaic coming of age film, part buddy comedy and part sports drama. The third covers pretty much the same territory as the first, only from the outside looking in. All three star Kevin Coster, and the sum of the respective parts feels much longer than the 136 minute running time.
If this movie proves anything, it's that Kevin Costner still has what it takes to lead a movie. He gets equal billing with Ashton Kutcher, but this is his movie through and through. If anything, age has only made him more fascinating to watch onscreen. And he's kept in good enough shape that I never once doubted that his character could do what he was shown as doing. For his part, Ashton Kutcher held his own better than could be expected.
The movie begins with narration, and ends with narration. They might as well have been the same narration, since the opening narration tells you in so many words exactly what's going to happen at the end. The journey in between was interesting and consistently involving, but never really truly inspiring. The people they portray, the Coast Guard rescue divers, are truly inspiring. The times when the movie is actually about rescue diving are the times when the movie hits its truest notes. Staring out the side of a helicopter as the ocean churns twenty feet below is a powerful moment to capture. A story that spends the bulk of its time passing the mantle from one generation of actors to the next is far less so. At the end of the film I still liked Kevin Costner's character a lot more than I liked Ashton Kutcher's. For whatever reason, the baton never got passed on.
Sela Ward, for her part, tackles Costner's character like she tackles Laurie's on "House." Kutcher's love interest gets a good introduction but largely left me wanting more of Sela Ward. The motley crew of Coast Guard recruits were bearable (a few even enjoyable). I found the ending unnecessary, but otherwise nothing stuck out as being less than competent. There really isn't anything, though, that we haven't seen before. ()

  - ADAM LENHARDT

September 09, 2006

Akeelah and the Bee

Akeelah and the Bee is one of the most important films I've ever seen. That word gets thrown around fairly often: i-m-p-o-r-t-a-n-t. Of much or great significance or consequence. How many pretentious costume dramas or political dramas are really important? The things that are truly significant are rarely political. Akeelah and the Bee is about inspiration overcoming desperation. It's about finding in oneself enough value to counter outside adversity. In a popular culture which focuses on sex and violence with increasingly idolatry, it's important to find an urban movie that values dedication, hard work, and individual achievement.
I grew up in a household where my parents always asked nothing more or less than the best that I could do. They gave me the best head start they could and then trusted me to do the best I could from there. Though the film never introduces us to Akeelah's father, I get the very strong impression that he did the same thing for her. Unlike Akeelah, I still have my father today. And unlike Akeelah, I was educated in an upper-middle-class culture where achievement and success are valued and praised — perhaps to excess. Akeelah's education was entrenched in a low-income culture of desperation and disappointment. Any individual's success in a culture like that is threatening, because raising the bar for one means throwing the spotlight on everybody else's failure. It's rude.
Akeelah is languishing in a school that offers her nothing. She is also a sensitive and perceptive child, who appreciates the value in others who probably don't appreciate the value in themselves. Her father was a word enthusiast, and spelling became the last link she had left to him. Too polite and too intimidated to make an anomaly of herself at school, internet Scrabble serves initially as the only outlet for her particular gift.
When first her teacher and then her principal goads her into taking part in the school's first spelling bee, it's therefore no surprise that she wins it. After her victory, the principal's associate Dr. Joshua Larabee starts firing much harder words at her. She goes for quite a while before he tries a zinger on her and she breaks. The room, with her through all her increasingly improbably successes, turns instantly against her and she flees. As she defied the odds, they supported her because her success was their success. But nobody in that room needed to be a part of any more failure. Drained of her own confidence and filled back up with their desperation, she cries out to her principal in the stairwell, betrayed that he would force her to succeed and so allow her to visibly fail. "Mr. Welch, I told you I did not want to do this! They're laughin' at me!" Dr. Larabee's unsympathetic response, delivered authoritatively from a dozen steps above, is full of dire truth: "They laugh because you intimidate them. But if you'd stood your ground you might have earned their respect." If this film is about anything, it's certainly not spelling. It's about the process by which Akeelah grows to live that advice.
By the time she'd matured enough to accept Dr. Larabee's tutelage, she already had dreams of the national spelling bee firmly rooted. She wanted it bad enough to let not family, community, nor herself get in the way. Dr. Larabee teaches her vocabulary and etymology, yes, but he is careful to imbue the words with real meaning. Akeelah expands not only her vocabulary, but also the power of these words and their purpose. Larabee draws from Douglass, DuBois, King, among others. With their essays and their ideas, Larabee aims to counter a lifetime of negative cultural self-image. As the bond between tutor and pupil softens, they each increasingly look to the other — in spite of their own best efforts — to fill the major holes in their lives. Not all tragedies can be blamed on society; Akeelah Anderson and Dr. Joshua Larabee have wounds that are deep, and personal.
Some moments in the beginning are excessively dewy-eyed, and some plot threads get lost along the way that I'd have liked to see resolved. But these complaints are immaterial compared to the momentum and honesty of the journey. When I mentored at a Boston charter school for a college debate class, I was first introduced to the anti-achievement mentality that is at the heart of the crisis in America's inter-city schools. One of the girls in my assigned group was all too eager to help, and was mocked relentlessly by her classmates for it. Another contributed quietly and discreetly, lest the others notice. She was screaming with intelligence and potential in spite of her best efforts to be just another face in the crowd. Keke Palmer's performance as Akeelah started as a dead ringer for this second girl, and progressed to what she could have been. I expected strong performances from Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett; they're marquee names. But Palmer, the eleven-year-old this whole venture is built upon, goes toe-to-toe with both of them. There are innumerable influences, emotions, and expectations swirling around Akeelah, and Palmer internalizes all of them.
Akeelah and the Bee is a reminder that talent is everywhere, and proof that ability and success are both measured in the love that fosters them. It celebrates love — of self, from family, for family, from community, for community. Akeelah isn't extraordinary because she can spell, but because in a world of hatred and fear, she is brave enough to love. ()

  - ADAM LENHARDT

September 05, 2006

Crank

Crank is not a film that can be judged by normal standards. It meets barely any of the objective qualities I normally look for in a film. It abandons any attempt to appease the normal laws of physics or medicine and indeed has a hit-or-miss record in staying consistent with what lip service it pays to each early on. The only thing this movie has going for it is Jason Statham. Fortunately, Statham's enough.
The movie begins with Statham's character, Chev Chelios, regaining consciousness on the floor of a dismal room. He soon discovers that the triads have laced his blood with chemicals that block the release of adrenaline. His only hope is to keep his heart rate pumping and his adrenaline flowing, or so his doctor tells him. What follows is nothing more or less than a greatest hits list of "Grand Theft Auto" scenarios played out over virtually the rest of the running time. Cars go through buildings. Cars trash other cars. Motorcycles send passengers flying. There's sex in cars. There's sex out of cars. There's a dumb blond, a Cuban gang, and a severed hand. If you expect story or viable characters you will be cruelly disappointed. If you expect the most casual and relentless violence in recent memory coupled with sophomoric, homophobic taunting and the occasional racial stereotype you will get more than your money's worth. In fact, iff the projector broke twenty minutes in, you'd have your money's worth.
Stimulants are snorted, chugged, sniffed, and injected. Chelios destroys half the city and kills probably one out of every two human beings that appear on screen. People are drowned, stabbed, shot, sucked off, screwed, and cut into pieces. Oh, and the occasional neck gets snapped. The film builds and builds, until it finally reaches it crescendo, hundreds if not thousands of feet above the city outside a helicopter. Throughout it all, Chelios keeps things practical and to the point. He doesn't really savour the violence; he does what he has to and moves on. And what he has to do is kill people. Frequently.
I can't really recommend this as a movie. It was a pretty great thrill ride, though. ()

  - ADAM LENHARDT

August 20, 2006

Accepted

The same thought ran through my mind the entire time I was watching Accepted. Sure, these kids are going to have an awesome four year experience, but aren't they going to be completely screwed once they graduate? Assuming tuition stays flat over the entire four years, that's over $80,000 of their parents' money down the drain with no concrete results to show for it. The film's celebration of something so naive and so childish is an extraordinarily weak foundation upon which an otherwise surprisingly enjoyable comedy is crafted.
Justin Long, who made pathetic likable and even brave in Dodgeball, takes the central role as Bartleby, the ringmaster of a desperate, last ditch scam launched after that perennial high school senior fear — what if none of the colleges I applied accept me? — is realized. If you live in a world without community colleges or indeed open admission of any sort, as Long's character Bartleby surely must, the solution Accepted presents would make a certain sort of sense. Together with single-minded redhead Rory and under-funded jock Hands, a shell of a university is crafted out of an abandoned mental hospital. Bartleby's friend Schrader, channelling Flounder from Animal House, handles the paperwork and gives the concocted website all of those realistic flourishes.
It's so real, in fact, that on opening day of orientation, roughly 300 students show up on the curb. Like Bartleby, South Harmon Institute of Technology (you can imagine how many jokes revolve around that acronym) is their very last fleeting hope. Gradually and rather haphazardly, a rough approximation of an institution of higher learning takes shape.
The student body is, to put it mildly, colourful. But none, not even the twitchy slouchy ADHD kid in a straight jacket, approaches the man Bartleby hires as dean of students. A burned out academic and raging alcoholic, Dean Lewis is Lewis Black unburdened by subject matter or structure. Initially introduced as a verbally abusive shoe salesman, Lewis trailer-side rants on the South Harmon lawn become one of S.H.I.T.'s most popular classes. Coupled with his offhand comments throughout, this is Lewis Black being the funniest I've probably ever seen him.
The plot, as it exists, involves a neighbouring enemy school filled with affluent white dudes, apparently the only target still fair game in our overly politically correct culture. But the plot's not really important. Accepted is a funny movie with likable characters. It's not terribly intelligent. It's not terrifically original. It's not even all that inspiring. It's simply good-natured fun that parodies the self-expression movement even as it embraces it. Sure, the students at S.H.I.T. will graduate without any real prospects to speak of. But the movie makes the case that they'll probably do more living in those four years than many of us will do our whole lives. And extending that logic, if the real world sucks too much after, so be it; they can balance the differential by killing themselves at the culmination of 22 fulfilling years of self-discovery.
See, if I myself had gotten a stronger formal higher education, this review would have had a real ending. ()

  - ADAM LENHARDT

July 29, 2006

The Devil Wears Prada

I can't claim to hold the slightest degree of expertise about fashion, or the culture that surrounds it. I have worn beat up old t-shirts and beat up old jeans (or in this weather, beat up old shorts) every single day, for as long as I can remember. Still, in a perverse way, I admired this film's moral compass. It would have been a wreck for the naive college graduate at the centre of this film, an impulse hire by the titular devil atop the hierarch of a trendy fashion magazine, to somehow elevate such a shallow industry. Even as the trends, buzzwords, and faces change seemingly daily, the fashion industry is and will always be too large to be fundamentally changed by any one person. Likewise, it would have been meaningless to watch that same shallow industry corrupt and deflower the naive college grad's sense of morality. Watching a movie about a character so impotent as to be completely molded and transformed by her environment is, for this reviewer at least, thoroughly uninteresting.
Watching the oppressive and ulcer-inducing fashion industry push that naive college grad, Andrea, down isn't the only thing that makes The Devil Wears Prada so interesting.  A large part of the film's substance comes in watching Andrea push back. It would have been easy to make the title character, fashion mogul Miranda Priestly, the story's outright villain. Miranda's a monster, to be sure. But Andrea's supposed to be an adult now, and the film refuses to let her shirk responsibility.
In one memorable scene, Andrea runs to her superior and office confidante, Nigel, in tears over their boss's latest beastly transgression. Nigel, despite being obviously quite fond of the girl, refuses to give her an inch. Grow up, he tells her, and stop complaining about an opportunity others would kill for. "Other girls dream of working here," he reminds her. "You only deign." In a world increasingly satisfied with the Bare Minimum, how refreshing it is to find a film that expects not merely effort from its protagonist, but passion — and results.
It's also refreshing to find a film that goes beneath the usual noble bohemians oppressive corporate oppressors dichotomy to explore the shifting sands of overlapping moral values. It's easy and popular to say that friends and family should always come above all else. But that course ends on the street with no prospects, what's then? Or how about if making the office first priority is necessary to do the job right? The Devil Wears Prada treats these, shockingly, as serious questions — worthy of exploration and deliberation.
While I admire the film for all of those reasons, it's the characters that allowed me to enjoy it. Meryl Streep, always so irritatingly practiced and deliberate in her roles, finally has found a character her style suits. Anne Hathaway, in her first leading role of any real weight, proves up to the challenge. This is the first time I've seen Emily Blunt, but her turn as the frigid and perpetually emotionally wrecked senior assistant swings wildly from venomous impatience to vulnerable gratitude, to devastated anger. She comes close to stealing every scene she's in. Nigel might be the smallest role I've seen Stanley Tucci in, but it's probably the best. Imbuing the role with kindness, passion, and patience, he steers Nigel through the gamut of emotions with a flamboyant yet mature sort of a courage.
The Devil Wears Prada dresses complex characters with well-suited performances and unveils them in a world full of painful truths that imbue what triumphs there are with real validity. ()

  - ADAM LENHARDT

July 21, 2006

Clerks II

It's strange, I think, that Clerks II is what it is. Eleven years, nine months and two days after the original hit the art houses, this sequel feels more like that one than any of Smith's others. More than a sequel, it's almost like a second draft; a draft with stronger characterizations, a better balance between the comedic and the dramatic, and an adept hand at weaving the same characters in and out of the plot at exactly the right times and in exactly the right ways. With a return to David Klein's raw, stripped-down photography — underrated for its role in the gritty, independent flair of Smith's early films — the words and dialogue are again allowed to take centre stage. Like the original, this is a film almost exclusively composed of people talking at each other. But six films later, Smith has elevated the form to a symphony of clashing and complementing phraseologies, backgrounds, and points of view.
Not since Chasing Amy has a Smith script grown so squarely from its characters. With the exception of a donkey subplot, all of the humour seemed to flow naturally from who the characters are and what they know (or don't) at a given moment. Some scenes proceed with an unflinching disregard for politically correctness. But Smith uses them not merely to shock the audience but to highlight characters that are outspoken even in the face of sometimes staggering personal ignorance. What few customers there are serve merely to launch the clerks that serve them off on new tangents; to raise new topics of discussion and explore different dimensions of how each character relates to all of the others.
Without the burden of a greater plot to serve, Smith's characters are finally unchained to behave exactly as they would. Dante and Randall still fire words back and forth at each other much like they did over a decade ago. But the intervening years have imbued their bitter banter with a certain urgency: time is ticking, yet the previous decade has only cemented the role each plays in the other's life further. They didn't have to worry about each other's feelings in the original; years of disappointment have taught them that they only lasting relationship each has ever had is with the other.
Jay and Silent Bob, elevated by the movies in between this and the original to cinematic heroes, are returned from the stratosphere to the low-level dope peddlers that they've always been. Foulmouthed and dimwitted yet naive and good-natured, Jay serves as the perfect window dressing. His unique and consistently incomplete understanding of any given situation can snap humour to drama and vice-versa at the drop of a hat. You can't really have Dante and Randall without Jay and Silent Bob, and Smith's script remembers to recognize what impact the foreground characters' decisions will have on them.
But in terms of the sheer bat shit bug-eyed crazy factor, Trevor Fehrman's Elias does the heavy lifting. Both fundamentalist Christian and fantasy fanboy, Elias is so repressed and socially insecure that he makes Will Ferrell's Corbit from Winter Passing look like a well-adjusted party animal. Randal sometimes said things in this film that made my jaw drop, yet Elias comes up with some out-of-the-blue statements that make Randal's jaw drop. Elias maintains a certain earnest likeability, much like Jay, in spite of his dysfunctional insanity.
Becky is Rosario Dawson exuding a sensual warmth, her speciality. She adds a certain down-to-earth charm to this role that made Becky less like an unattainable move star and more like the women I remember most fondly from my own daily living. In a movie centred around unknown actors, Dawson's challenge was to dim her star a bit, so that her character might work at their level. The greatest praise that I can give her is that she succeeds without impairing any of the qualities that make her so attractive to begin with.
Clerks II is a revelation. Film is a medium in which the script is just the starting point. As Smith the filmmaker evolved, his greater exploration of that medium left less and less room for Smith the writer. This is the first film since Chasing Amy where the writer came out on top. Smith the writer has honed his craft to create what is probably his very best screenplay. If Smith the filmmaker resigned himself to merely putting Smith the writer's blab-fests to celluloid, I don't think I'd mind a bit. It's what he's apparently best at. ()

  - ADAM LENHARDT

July 08, 2006

Proof

Proof is an extraordinary achievement of true and literal first-person cinematic storytelling. It deals with a woman at a moment of severe emotional instability, questioning everything about her life and putting the pieces together as the film does. That woman is Catherine. With the passing of her genius mathematician father, she must decide whether to rejoin the outside world or sever ties with it forever. But she is so beaten down by the shadow of her father's genius (and mental illness), so flattened by the manipulations of a sister that casually undercuts her at every turn, the decision becomes increasingly complicated as the stakes rise with each new scene.
The film's non-linear editing brought me inside her shattered state of mind; the film only allows its audience to trust her, in any given moment, as much as she trusts herself. A second viewing therefore became a totally different experience. The film transformed into an instantly objective third-person narrative in which my more complete understanding justified and deepened the actions and behaviour of the characters. It is a credit to director John Madden – who previously directed Auburn’s play on the London stage – that everything holds together so well through that alternative lens. It’d be a criminal act to reveal whether Catherine is sane, partially crazy, or completely crazy. Instead I promise that, going through the film again, each scene built off the others to reinforce the truth. Even if the film never comes out and literally says it, there is the satisfaction of a definitive answer to work forward from.
There’s an arch sort of humour that a film all about mathematicians – eventually centered on a titular mathematical proof even – has virtually nothing in the way of actual mathematics. Math is the MacGuffin that guides the characters, raising walls between some and building bridges between others. Catherine connects through her father primarily through their shared mathematical genius, and it is that symbiotic relationship between his genius and his illness that causes the proof to haunt her so. If the proof is hers, she is of her father’s magnitude, clearly with his genius and likely also with his instability. But if the proof is his, her own memory is so undependable as to render her insane already. So it’s safer for her to keep it locked safely away, even as she lives with it — literally and emotionally — every single day. When a young protégé of her father’s slowly liberates her from her own mounting insecurities, she trusts him to bring that proof back out into the open. Everything she is and could be hangs on what he does with that proof.
There are many people out there in the world beaten down by those who might also love them. Beaten down by the formidable presence of their families’ booming personalities, beaten down by the way those they trust chip away at their self-confidence by saying: "You're instincts are wrong. For your own good, do it my way." And once they're beaten down sufficiently, they don't need the outside influences anymore to cause them pain. Once we grow to distrust ourselves enough, our own self-doubt provides plenty of anxiety to feed back into itself. Once someone gets to that point, robbed so completely of a foundation on which to build his sense of self, what can bring that person back? Proof has one suggestion, optimistic and compelling in the right sort of ways — ways that, ironically enough, mathematics can't account for. ()

  - ADAM LENHARDT

June 30, 2006

Superman Returns

Superman Returns is the most subversive superhero movie I've ever seen. The leads may be young, but this movie emphasizes change and maturity in a genre that values by stability and youth. Indeed, the marvel is that these characters still intrinsically feel like the ones I remember in a story that places each one in a position they've never been before. Some new characters get more screen time than established favourites. Jor-El's lines of exposition from the 1978 film serve as emotional sign posts along his son's journey, until his original prophecy, that "the son becomes the father, and the father the son," is realized in a unexpected and resonant way. A way that finds real emotional truth out of dialogue conceived originally to forward a Christian allegory.
That beat, which I'll cover at the end, is even more revelatory in a movie that transforms that Christ allegory into a rather extreme and literal parallel. Superman: The Movie was a celebration of Superman as a Christ-like figure of hope. Superman Returns treats its hero's calling as a burden rather than a blessing. It spends almost too much time mourning our hero's sacrifices and — after the first big action scene — little to no time celebrating his most visually epic accomplishments. This will be a deal breaker for many; its the most radical thematic break from tradition. After seeing what the movie gave us instead, though, I decided I was okay with it. The victories this film gives instead are smaller and messier but more meaningful. Being responsible for the whole world is abstract and grandiose. Being responsible for people, for a family, is unglamorous but tangible; since mistakes on this level won't destroy civilization, you have to live with them when you wake up the next morning. What a strange truth to find in superhero movie.
Each and every cast member is perfect and unfailing. Routh's Superman, so awkward and gawky in stills, inhabits the role with grace and natural believability. All he had to do was save a spacecraft and an airplane, and I never really questioned him in the tights again. It's not a matter of a good performance or a bad one. He simply is Superman. Bosworth, whom I've never liked in anything else, makes a better brunette than a blonde and straddles perfectly the line between fearless reporter and mother. She didn't remind me of any other Lois, so much as conjure my collective memory of all of them. Sam Huntington fleshes out the gag of Jimmy Olsen into a cohesive manner of being. Frank Langella, faced with J.K. Simmons's powerhouse J. Jonah Jameson, ventures out in the opposite direction. As the world falls to pieces around him, he confidently and casually rides the wave, keeping his headlines up-to-date all the while. Langella remembers that Editor-in-Chief is a job as well as a mouthpiece — and his Perry White is damned good at his job. Eva Marie Saint isn't given much to do as Ma Kent, but she does it with professionalism and class.
Then there's the bad guys. Spacey's Luthor was the character I was most scared about. He ended up unquestionably one of the highlights of the movie. Definitely in the lineage of Hackman's goofy take on the role, Spacey departs to the character's gain by imbuing the role with real menace. Lex's collection of wigs was a fun gag in 1978. The wigs are no laughing matter after spending some time with Spacey's Luthor in 2006, because like the cry of a wolf they're a sign that danger is near. Parker Posey's Kitty Kowalski is Miss Tessmacher with a dangerous streak: dumb as she is, unlike the latter I could actually believe her handling day-to-day living with a criminal mastermind. One of Lex's thugs, in guarding the prisoners, also standouts in one particular scene.
Then there's Lois's fiancé, Richard White. Given more to do here as a mortal than as Cyclops in the X-Men series, Marsden has created a strong emotional antagonist. It would have been easier on everybody if he'd made the character a prick, but his Richard is decent down to the bone. We'd all be cheering if Superman swooped in and saved Lois from a prick. Instead, we like him almost as much as our hero. On some level, even Superman respects Richard if he doesn't outright like him. The family that Richard and Lois have created is functional and warm. It would cheapen the character of Lois Lane if it were anything else. It would cheapen the character of Superman if he allowed himself to be a home wrecker. Yet Superman and Lois Lane, more clearly than ever before, are meant for each other. And so Superman Returns asks questions that no other superhero movie, perhaps even no other superhero story, has asked before.
Bosworth's Lois is guarded, the eagerness of Routh's Superman is tempered by concern. The love of each for others, and especially for each other, is deepened as a result. Lois wouldn't accept Superman back easily. Superman wouldn't get Lois back easily. Lois, always the awestruck schoolgirl alongside damsel in distress before, now faces a real emotional journey of her own. Accepting Superman back into her life, allowing the emotions she has for him — and perhaps more importantly the trust she had in him — to seep back in is a more elusive and more rousing victory than the most astonishing and exhilarating rescue.
In order to discuss Superman's victory, I have to spoil it all; his victory comes not up on the figurative pedestal of an adoring crowd, not set to rousing up tick in the score, not soaring victoriously over the fields of battle. It's found sitting on a bed in a small suburban home, watching the sleeping form of his child for the first time, seeing through his father's eyes, repeating his father's words, and finally understanding what it means to be part of something and not alone. ()

  - ADAM LENHARDT

May 21, 2006

Little Manhattan

At the end of Little Manhattan, I felt ready to puke. These are children, yes, but that only makes the whole damn thing more excruciating. They don't have years of rejection and disappointment to prepare them. They don't have the years of recoveries to let them how normal it is to feel like nothing will ever be alright again. Jennifer Flackett's screenplay stabs right at the heart of what it is to place so much of yourself upon someone else's glances. Mark Levin, in his directorial debut, utterly refuses to back down or cushion the blow.
These are fairly-well-to-do up through very-well-to-do people we're dealing with here, and yet the experience is so universal that it transcends age or economic station. Charlie Ray, age eleven at the time, captures innocently with a smile here and a glance there all of the wonder and mystery that have haunted men through the ages. Josh Hutcherson is the perfect analogue for every step of that wonderful and often terrifying roller coaster. His narration is often frantic; but then, his is a frantic situation. As his parents, Bradley Whitford and Cynthia Nixon make a compelling case that man and women will never reach a place of saying what they actually feel.
In his review of Say Anything, Roger Ebert wrote that, "a movie like this is possible because its maker believes in the young characters, and in doing the right thing, and in staying true to oneself. The sad teenage comedies of recent years are apparently made by filmmakers who have little respect for themselves or their characters, and sneer because they dare not dream." The protagonists of Little Manhattan are even younger, but at least our narrator is no less serious. The movie is filled with moments of Gabe and Rosemary merely standing and looking at each other. Rosemary sees something elusive and quietly wonderful in Gabe, and Gabe sees everything in Rosemary. Levin knows that with his two leads he has captured something magical, and he (unlike so many of today's directors) has the respect and the vision not to get in their way.
We live in a world filled with people making wrong choices, interpreting the wrong things, and idly hoping for the impossible. Most of us become hardened and cynical early on. Gabe takes the wreckage of his own parent's love, and sees the right choice as his only available option. It is rare to find anybody that still thinks like that. The characters in this film dare to dream, and they suffer for it. The miracle is that the filmmakers take care to remind us frankly and unapologetically how beautiful and how treasured that suffering will always be. Flackett and Levin have looked back to childhood to craft the Say Anything of the twenty-first century. ()

  - ADAM LENHARDT