Superman Returns

Posted on June 27, 2006 at 11:59 am

Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grades
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some intense action violence.
Profanity: Some crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Smoking, drinking, scene in bar
Violence/ Scariness: Frequent action violence, characters in peril (including child), major character badly hurt, characters injured and killed, brief joke about death of dog
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 2006
Date Released to DVD: 2006 ASIN: B001F3FUK6

Superman has returned. In the movie, Superman (now played by Brandon Routh) comes back to earth after five years in search of his roots on the exploded planet Krypton, and the inhabitants of earth are overjoyed. In real life, Superman has come back to summer audiences in search of the popcorn pleasures of explosions and flying, and the inhabitants of earth will be, if not overjoyed, happily entertained.

Routh is better than he needs to be. He’s a Superman with soul who makes his soaring flights expressions of his existential longing. But superhero movies depend on their villains, and this one has Kevin Spacey happily chewing up every piece of scenery in sight as Lex Luthor and is almost sinfully entertaining. He just loves being bad and we love watching it.

Director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, X-Men) nimbly navigates the tricky balance between the old-school purists (the Lois and Jimmy of the 1950’s television show have cameos and there are clever connections to the original comic book, the 1930’s radio program, and the 1978 Christopher Reeve movie) and 21st century sensibility, with existential questions: does the world need Superman? Does he need us?

Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) does not think so. She has a fiance, a dashing pilot named Richard (James Marsden, switching from Marvel’s X-Men to D.C.’s Superman) who conveniently happens to be the nephew of choleric editor Perry White. She has a son named Jason, a cute kid with long hair and asthma. And she has a Pulitzer Prize for an editorial arguing that the world is better off without Superman.

But before Perry can say “Great Ceasar’s ghost” Supe has suited up and is rescuing Lois again. She’s on a fancy new jet, covering its first flight, when everything goes wrong. The rescue is thrillingly staged, the kind of sequence summer popcorn movies are made for. Routh has the square jaw to make us believe in the man of steel and the puppy eyes to make us want to hang a poster in our locker after study hall. He and Bosworth make a picture-perfect couple, with their matching chins and dazzling smiles. The special effects are gorgeous; the bad guy is deliciously evil.

But it is easier to like than love. Traditionally, people have fallen into one camp or the other: Superman or Batman. There are those who like the dark, brooding, vulnerable Batman and those who prefer the more optimistic, confident, sometimes naive, outgoing Superman. Perhaps concluding that no one wants to see a cornfed boy from Smallville spout off about truth, justice, and the American way, this Superman is isolated by the mandate of the father he can barely remember. He was sent to Earth to help humans find their best selves and to protect them from their worst. That creates a barrier that prevents him from getting close to anyone. He loves Lois. He longs to be close to her. But he knows he cannot be what Richard is — a guy who can be there to help make dinner and pick up Jason from day care. He knows he must be willing to sacrifice everything, even his own life, to protect humanity. And Richard knows he can never be what Superman is, the man Lois loves. And of course Lex has some surprises for Superman, including a blade made from Kryptonite. Even Jason knows a few things that will surprise the adults in his life.

That’s a pretty soapy plot for a superhero movie. Some will find it rich and complex; some will find it overstuffed. It underuses some of its greatest resources, like Parker Posey (who looks sensational as Lex’s sidekick but doesn’t have enough to do) and Kal Penn as one of his indistinguishable henchmen. Some will admire the way Superman doesn’t just fly, but hovers. Others will think all that overlay gets in the way of the popcorn-chomping scenes and that Superman’s hovering makes him float like Tinkerbell. That pockmarked “S” on his chest looks like it was cut out of a bath mat, and the cape, while it billows nicely, is too dark. And the ending is not exciting enough to be a cliffhanger or satisfying enough to give a sense of resolution.

Still, Superman flies into space, lands an airplane in a baseball field, and rescues people all over the world. Bullets shatter when they hit his eyeball. He gives us the pleasure of watching a terrible villain, secure in the knowledge that Superman won’t let anything bad happen to us. Does the world need Superman, even a lonely, sometimes melancholy one? You bet we do.

Parents should know that the movie has a great deal of action-style (very little blood) violence. Characters are injured and killed and a child is in peril. Spoiler alerts: Superman is beaten and stabbed; some graphic and disturbing images. There is some crude language (pissed, crap) and there are some double entendres and mild sexual references. Lois is not married to the father of her child. Spoiler alert: the issue of the child’s paternity is raised.

Families who see this movie should talk about why Superman wanted to see what was left of Krypton. Older viewers might want to talk about some of the story’s themes parallel the New Testament or classic myths. They should talk about how Superman was created by a pair of teenagers who sold their idea for $130.

Families who enjoy this movie will enjoy all of the various depictions of Superman, going back to the original comic books, the television series (“Superman,” “Lois and Clark,” “Smallville,” cartoons), and the Christopher Reeve movies (but skip the last one). They also might like to see Bosworth and Spacey as Sandra Dee and Bobby Darrin in Beyond the Sea.

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Action/Adventure Fantasy Movies -- format Science-Fiction

The Devil Wears Prada

Posted on June 26, 2006 at 12:05 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some sensuality.
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, poor decision-making about a sexual situation when tipsy
Violence/ Scariness: Tense and upsetting verbal confrontations, break-ups
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 2006
Date Released to DVD: 2006 ASIN: B000J103PC

It is just too bad Meryl Streep is so good at drama and suffering and accents and stuff like that because that means we don’t get enough of a chance to see how brilliantly funny she is. Her under-appreciated work in Death Becomes Her, Defending Your Life, and She-Devil is fearless, ego-less, and apparently effortless, though clearly thought through in the most meticulous detail. In this film, Streep kicks it up a notch playing the title character, the ruthlessly rapacious Miranda Priestly, editor of a Vogue-style fashion magazine called Runway.

It would be easy to portray the boss-from-hell as an over-the-top Cruella DeVil-type, all shrieks and roars and flashing eyes. But Streep gives Miranda a voice that is quiet but steely, so cold it could give you frostbite. She throws down her Birkin bag with the casually triumphant air of a rodeo star who’s just broken the record for roping a calf. She creates panic with gestures measured in millimeters — a lifted eyebrow, a pursed lip, just removing her sunglasses or tilting her head with the white meringue of a hairstyle that wouldn’t dare get mussed. She is terrifying, mesmerizing, hilarious, and — here is the miracle of this perfomance — touching.

Andy (Anne Hathaway) is a recent graduate of Northwestern University‘s prestigious journalism school who apparently missed class the day they explained that you should not go to a job interview without doing your homework. Emily (the wonderfully contemptuous Emily Blunt) has just been promoted from Miranda’s second assistant to her first and is replacing herself. She is about to dismiss Andy, but Miranda intervenes, and soon Andy is hanging up Miranda’s coat and bypassing the laws of physics in getting coffee from Starbucks to the office in an instant (apparently the company cannot afford a coffee maker).

Nigel (Stanley Tucci in a witty and sympathetic performance) takes pity on Andy and tells her that she has to stop acting as though she is slumming. Andy starts to get caught up in the world of fashion and glitter, leaving her friends and her chef boyfriend (Adrien Grenier) disappointed and neglected.

The title makes it clear that this story is about the devil, and remember, the devil is all about temptation. Andy is tempted not just by the chance to earn Miranda’s respect but by a handsome writer (Simon Baker) who may be able to offer her a real journalism job, maybe something more as well.

The work vs. life story is nothing new and Andy is not as sympathetic a character nor the dilemmas she faces as simple as the movie would like us to believe. Andy is portrayed as the classic naif who comes to the big city. But she is careless and and arrogant in her approach to the job. Nigel correctly tells her that she “deigns” to do it. She thinks those around her are superficial snobs, but she is superficial and snobbish in her judgment of them. The movie wants us to believe her worst crimes are her failure to show up at her boyfriend’s birthday party and her edging out a colleague at work for a coveted assignment. But she commits a far greater and more devastating betrayal for which she faces no consequences at all.

Miranda is supposed to be the classic menace, a grotesque witch right out of Hansel and Gretel, inviting Andy into her candy house only to eat her up, or the witch in Rapunzel, keeping her a prisoner in a tower, away from those she loves. But while Miranda is not kind or nurturing, she is smart and tough and the best in the world at what she does. She insists that those around her be as dedicated and ruthlessly imaginative, even as honest within the context of the particular aspirations of her enterprise, as she is. She knows that the moment her publication fails to reflect what is both new and excellent — requiring energetic pursuit of fresh ideas and resolute aesthetic judgment — readers will leave for whoever is doing it better. After all, that’s what fashion means.

So, the movie pulls its punches. It sets itself up as a story with clear good guys and bad guys, but by backing away from a more authentic portrayal of the genuine conflicts we face at work, it feels as smug and superficial as its heroine. Fortunately, Streep is as classic and indispensible as a little black dress by Chanel. The most devlish crime she commits is stealing the movie away from the doe-eyed ingenue.

Parents should know that this movie includes a very poor decision made while tipsy to have sex with someone who turns out to be less than honest. In another era, the heroine would have found this out just before having sex, but here it is afterward, and the movie glosses over any adverse consequences for herself and her relationship with another man. Characters use some strong language and drink (see above). There are some painful confrontations and break-ups. Parents should also know that some behavior they might have concerns about is passed off as clever and resourceful. The points about values and loyalty are resolved well. A strength of the movie is the sympathetic and non-stereotyped portrayal of a gay character.

Families who see this movie should talk about the difference between a job you “deign to do” and one you’d “die to do.” Who is right about the importance of the topics covered in Runway magazine? What are the three most important lessons Andy learns from Miranda? Who in the movie tried to be like Miranda and how successful were they? Why does Nigel say what he does when he gets the bad news? Families may also want to talk about their most tyranical bosses and teachers and about the pressure on girls to be skinny and wear what magazines dictate as the latest fashions. How do we decide what we want to look like?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy other fashion-world films like Funny Face and A New Kind of Love with Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, and Zsa Zsa Gabor(!). My blog has some links to thoughtful commentary on the Streep’s character and the clothes in the movie. They may not be authentic depictions of the way fashion magazine staff dress but they are great to look at and help tell the story and that’s what movie costume design is all about.

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Comedy Drama Movies -- format


Posted on June 21, 2006 at 12:16 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for language, crude and sex-related humor, and some drug references.
Profanity: Very strong language for a PG-13 including profanity used by children, f-word
Alcohol/ Drugs: Cigar smoking, drug jokes
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril, serious illness, sad death
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 2006
Date Released to DVD: 2006 ASIN: B000HT386M

Like Tom Cruise, Adam Sandler has based his career on playing shallow, callow boy-men who learn painful for him/humorous for us lessons about the importance of growing up. Those stories have enduring appeal on two levels. First, we get the pleasure of seeing someone who can be irresponsible and child-like, acting out a fantasy of superego-less freedom. And second, we get the reassuring conclusion to make us feel better about not having that freedom anymore. This is especially appealing to teenagers, who are at the brink of this transition.

This film is something of a transition for Sandler. He’s too old and beefy to play the boy-man who learns about romantic love as comedy, so here he plays architect Michael Newman, who is already married to Donna (Kate Beckinsale) and father of two young children. He is under a lot of pressure at work and feels overwhelmed. At Bed Bath and Beyond he enters a door marked “Way Beyond” and meets Morty (Christopher Walken), who gives him a “universal remote.” It can put real life on pause, mute, or fast forward. Michael can even access a commentary track and the movie’s best surprise is the identity of the narrator.

At first, he is delighted. He fast-forwards through a fight with Donna and mutes the dog. But then he finds out that the remote anticipates what he will select based on his past choices. Who can control the remote control?

The movie goes from silly (if often crude and discomfitingly cruel) to surprisingly serious, swelling strings and deathbed regrets, right up to the edge of maudlin. But Sandler keeps us rooting for Michael and Donna, in part because it is clear that Michael always loves his family and because it is clear that they always love him. There were times when I wanted a universal remote to hit “next chapter” to skip through repeated jokes about a dog having sex with a stuffed animal or children using four-letter words. The movie is too long. Sandler’s slacker passive agression was never appealing and get harder to take with each new iteration. But there are moments when the conclusion is genuinely affecting. It isn’t only Sandler’s characters that are growing up. I just wish we could hit fast-forward to move him there a little sooner.

Parents should know that, as often happens, the MPAA ratings board permits much more explicit sexual material in a PG-13 comedy than they would in a PG-13 drama. There are sexual references, crude jokes, and sexual situations that are in shadow but still fairly explicit, with post-sex discussion of whether it was satisfying for the woman and a running joke about a dog attempting to have sex with a stuffed animal (which, weirdly, Donna finds to be a turn-on). There are jokes about sexual harassment,small genitals, and repeated adultery. Characters use many four-letter words, and use of those words by children is intended to be humorous. A character smokes a cigar and there are some drug jokes. Characters eat a lot of junk food. There are serious illnesses, sad deaths and unhappy family situations, including divorce.

Families who see this movie should talk about what they would do with a “universal remote.” They should talk about times when they felt conflicts between work or school and family obligations and how they handled them.

Families who enjoy this movie will enjoy Sandler’s other films, including Big Daddy and The Wedding Singer. And they will enjoy other fantasies about people who realize the importance of family, from classics like A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life to Multiplicity, Bruce Almighty, and The Family Man.

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Comedy Drama Fantasy Movies -- format

Waist Deep

Posted on June 20, 2006 at 12:23 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong violence and pervasive language.
Profanity: Very strong language including many uses of the n-word
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drug use, characters deal drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Graphic violence, characters shot and many injured and killed, child in peril, man's hand sliced off, punching
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: 2006
Date Released to DVD: 2006 ASIN: B000HDZKLO

A standard gangsta bang-bang movie with a script like a rap song benefits from charismatic performers and smooth writing and direction by Vondie Curtis Hall, who plays it like an urban western — a strong, quiet loner takes on a corrupt man who runs the town with the help of a girl gone wrong with a heart of gold.

O2 (singer Tyrese Gibson) is out of prison and determined to stay straight and take care of his son, Junior. But his car is stolen, with Junior asleep in the back seat. His only lead to finding his son is Coco (Meagan Goode). O2 needs to raise $100,000 in one day to get Junior back from local crime boss Meat (rapper The Game). Coco agrees to help for half of whatever he raises.

They rob warring factions of bad guys, trying to distract them by pitting them against each other. And they rob bank safe deposit boxes. A character calls them a modern day Bonnie and Clyde, but they are more like a modern day Robin Hood because they only steal from rich crooks. The safe deposit boxes all belong to Meat.

Gibson has a strong, appealing presence and he makes the quiet scenes with Coco and Junior as compelling as the action scenes. Meagan Goode, who has been the best thing in many bad movies, gets a chance to show off her range. She has to be a hustler and she has to be open; she has to be tough and tender; she has to be beautiful without caring whether she is beautiful or not. Goode and Gibson act like they know and care about these characters and expect us to as well.

Parents should know that this is a very graphic and violent movie with frequent gunshots (many characters wounded and killed), car chases, and other kinds of peril and injury. A child is kidnapped and held for ransom and the death of another child is described. A character’s hand is sliced off and he is slapped with it. Characters use drugs and manufacture and deal drugs, steal, cheat, and betray each other. There is frequent strong language including the n-word. There is a non-explicit sexual situation. The movie engages in a lot of gangsta stereotyping but a strength of the movie is the portrayal of a loving and devoted father.

Families who see this movie should talk about the choices made by O2 and Coco. What made them decide to trust one another? What made O2 decide to trust Lucky?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Cradle 2 the Grave and they will enjoy seeing Tyrese in 2 Fast 2 Furious and Meagan Goode in You Got Served, Deliver us from Eva, and Biker Boyz.

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Action/Adventure Crime Drama Movies -- format Thriller

The Lake House

Posted on June 19, 2006 at 8:00 am

Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grades
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some language and a disturbing image.
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, scenes in bar
Violence/ Scariness: Non-graphic injuries, deaths, scenes in hospital
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: 2006
Date Released to DVD: 2006 ASIN: B000HEWEE4

In honor of Sandra Bullock’s best all-time movie opening with “The Proposal,” this week’s DVD pick is another Bullock favorite.

Movie romances must have two things: an obstacle to keep the apart and a reason to root for them to get together. This has both. Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock have so much chemistry (perhaps based in part on our fond memories of Speed) that we can feel it even though this story gives them only one real scene together. And the obstacle is a nice one. They live in two different time zones. And by that I don’t mean EST and PST. They both live in CST — they’re in Chicago. I mean that Alex (Reeves) is an architect living 2004 and Kate (Bullock) is a doctor living in 2006.

Yeah. Don’t try to think it through too thoroughly. Just go with it. The tenderness of the story just might make it worthwhile.

Alex and Kate are connected by the title residence. It is a house on the lake, and by that I mean ON the lake. It is on stilts, made all of glass. The view is breathtaking but it is isolated. Kate moves out, leaving a note for the new occupant about forwarding her mail. But he is confused. As he moves in, no one has lived there for years. She refers to pawprints and a box that he can’t see. And the date on her note is two years in the future.

It seems the mailbox is a time/space continuum wormhole. Or maybe it is enchanted. The movie does not waste any time with explanations. It just shows us Kate and Alex, revealing themselves to each other through their letters and to us through their interactions with their friends, family, and colleagues. We see them grow toward each other, the very distance and strangness of the connection creating a place for each of them to thaw a part of them that has been isolated and frozen. We realize how — and why — destiny is bringing them together, and when it does, it is sweet and satisfying.

Bullock lowers the pilot light on her usual twinkle and allows herself to be vulnerable and even a little aloof. Reeves turns up the pilot light a little bit, giving us more than his usual blankness, letting us feel how much he wants to be with Kate and what he is willing to do to make it happen. If the two elements are there, a romantic story has an essential rightness that makes is possible, even a pleasure, to let ourselves believe in it. So, don’t ask whether there could be a house made of glass on top of a lake or whether Kate kept driving back to the mailbox. Just enjoy it.

Parents should know that characters drink (scenes in a bar). A boyfriend and girlfriend break up when she kisses someone else. A character is hit by a bus (offscreen) and dies and there is another sad death. Characters use some mild language.

Families who see this film should talk about how the lake house was a metaphor for Kate and Alex, giving them a view of great beauty but separating them from it.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy other time-travel fantasies like Frequency and Somewhere In Time and another kind of story about love through letters, 84 Charing Cross Road. They will also enjoy Portrait of Jennie and the book that inspired it by Robert Nathan. And they will enjoy Jane Austen’s wonderful book Persuasion and the excellent movie version

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Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Fantasy Romance
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