Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The Devil Wears Prada - Movie Review

The Devil Wears Prada 2006

"I don't know why writing literature is seen as a loftier goal than writing books that people really can read on a beach or a plane."
- Lauren Weisberger

"People can read literature on a beach or a plane as well, you stupid twat."
- The Bloody Red Carpet

Since the dawn of cinema, the classic tale of a small town girl who comes to the big city in search of fame, romance and happiness has played out across flickering screens. Hell, Joan Crawford made a career out of it even when her small town girl was looking fifty seven around the blurred soft focus edges. The latest installment in this film staple genre is “The Devil Wears Prada”, based on the ridiculously successful thinly veiled roman à clef by one Lauren Weisberger.

It tells the insipidly simple tale of one Andrea Sachs, but everybody calls her Andy – or stupid, dumb, naïve twat – but we’ll get to that later, played by the lovely and talented Anne Hathaway. She comes to the big, evil city in search of fame as a budding journalist and ends up taking the job of second assistant to the most powerful and influential woman in fashion. We could hit you over the head with the backstory of who that certain powerful and influential woman might actually be, but then we would have to declare you brain dead and really what’s the point?

The ferociously controlling fashion doyenne is played by none other than Meryl Streep, who is having an incredibly fun time playing a cunt in designer togs. And kudos to her! For the main problem with “The Devil Wears Prada”, and there are many – is that we care more for the uptight raving bitch than the lovable small town gal. It doesn’t help that the small town gal is surrounded by a boyfriend and chums straight out of sitcom casting hell, and that she is given fuck all to emote over the course of the screenplay.

Meryl Streep hardly needs an intro at this point, but it service to her craft we will remind you that this not the first time she has parlayed the role of a heartless, vain creature. Starting with her film debut as the society bitch chum of Jane Fonda in the very fine “Julia” – also based on real events, but with a much higher literary pedigree coming from the pen of Lillian Hellman – to her chilling Oscar nominated turn as a seemingly cold hearted mother in “A Cry in the Dark”, to the wickedly self absorbed romance novelist in “She-Devil” and her aging actress in search of the fountain of youth in “Death Becomes Her”.

Now, we are about to enter sacrosanct territory here and confess that while we have been impressed with several of Meryl’s performances over the decades – we have never found her to be a particularly brilliant comedienne. Relax people. Unclench your cheeks and pay attention and learn. For all of Meryl’s vaunted talent and very capable skills with accents and wigs, she has always lacked the ability to truly pull of a soaring comic creation. Her domain has always been one of drama - she is our great tragedienne. Despite the Oscar nomination her turn in “Postcards from the Edge” received, we feel it had more to do with lackluster roles for leading ladies than award caliber comic delivery. The old vet Shirley MacLaine stole that film out from Meryl’s elongated nose and ran with it, due to her finely tuned comic chops.

Here Meryl hits all the right notes and delivers two very fine moments, perhaps the highlights of the film. One, her take no prisoners monologue about the importance of fashion and its own particular “trickle down theory”. And two, when attempting to explain her reasoning for hiring such an unspeakably unqualified assistant as Miss Anne Hathaway, her expertly delivered punchline of “hire the smart fat girl” enters its own quotable quotes lexicon to be heard during two-for-one Happy Hour at Gay Bars the world over.

Which may be precisely the audience for this bizarrely unimaginative but intriguingly well cast (as far as the two leads go) flick. For certainly in the past, we have had more interesting films dealing with the world of high fashion. Hell, the opening ten minutes of “Funny Face” nails it spot on, with more élan and less thumpingly dull filler than the entirety of this sad little flick. And as for the publishing world, as seen from the eyes of a young innocent assistant having to deal with a cold hearted bitch for a boss – well, that was done forty seven years ago with the aforementioned Joan Crawford in “The Best of Everything”.

We sorely miss Meryl when she is not on the screen, not due to any heartfelt realism (although they try unsuccessfully to ram that down our throats with a ludicrous divorce scenario for the Miranda character – why bother to add a human dimension to this woman when she clearly doesn’t need one?), but rather due to the veneer thin tedious relationship drama being enacted by our gal Anne and the hideously freakish Adrian Grenier.

Can we just stop her for a moment and question how this young man with the cleft palette ever entered into a successful acting career? (Although if they ever make a big screen musical version of “Cats” – they need look no further for their Bombalurina!) We know that the knuckle dragging set enjoy his horrid little show on HBO for some obtuse reason, but why transfer him to the big screen to frighten us with his gerbil like jawline and Brillo pad wig and much worse for all involved his complete and total inability to emote on camera? We do register that he has a skootch of charisma that enables him to coast on such difficult lines as: “Hello.”, “Goodbye” and “Hi”. But anything more complicated than that and he simply evaporates into the ether.

It doesn’t help that Simon Baker, that delicious little crumpet from Down Under portrays a viable romantic option for Andy. Go with the Aussie, you stupid girl!

Anne Hathaway may have found her claim to fame with the braces set in a duo of frothy Cinderella inspired junk – but we have a soft spot for her in her brave attempts to venture forth into adult fare. Her lovely supporting work in the fine “Nicholas Nickleby” remake and her very fine turn in last years “Brokeback Mountain” assured us of her talent. A talent that is sadly gone to waste as the formless thing called Andrea Sachs. A seemingly talented journalist that is completely incapable of assessing a situation directly in front of her face is hardly a well thought out central lead. We understand that many young girls expect instant fame and glory by starting out as an assistant, but if you are trying to depict an intelligent young woman paying her dues in the big city, you might want to make her appear, oh we don’t know . . . intelligent?

And that ultimately is the problem with “The Devil Wears Prada”. Hollow characterizations, an unworkable romance subplot and a vapid central character that earns no respect from the audience. When it comes time for the “sweet Andrea character to triumph over the “nastyMiranda – we could care less. We might have mustered up the energy to be slightly more interested if the key “transformation” scene from shlubby Midwestern girl to fashionista assistant didn’t come with a wardrobe culled from a nouveau riche Pakistani-housewife-by-way-of-Southampton.

The fault, dear readers lies not in our stars but in our source material, writers and director. A light frothy piece of fiction can sometimes make for a good film adaptation, but typically ends up being a cinematic piece of shit. A director better known for episodic television aimed at the testosterone set may not be the best pick for a film dealing with two allegedly strong female leads set amidst the Condé Nast set.

Stay home and rent “Funny Face” and “The Best of Everything” for a far more satisfying evening. Bless you all!

Directed by David Frankel
Screenplay by Aline Brosh McKenna
Based on the thinly veiled roman à clef by Lauren Weisberger

Meryl Streep as Miranda Priestly
Anne Hathaway as Andy Sachs
Stanley Tucci as Nigel
Emily Blunt as Emily
Adrian Grenier as Nate
Tracie Thoms as Lilly
Rich Sommer as Doug
Simon Baker as Christian Thompson
Daniel Sunjata as James Holt
David Marshall Grant as Richard Barnes
James Naughton as Stephen

Cinematography by Florian Ballhaus
Film Editing by Mark Livolsi
Original Music by Theodore Shapiro
Production Design by Jess Gonchor
Art Direction by Anne Seibel & Tom Warren
Set Decoration by Lydia Marks
Costumes Borrowed from Famous Fashion Houses by Patricia Field’s various assistants

Superman Returns - Movie Review

Superman Returns 2006

We have another confession to make. We have been huge fans of Superman since the Man of Steel burst from the pages of Action Comics # 1 sixty eight years ago this summer. And since then he has become the archetype of the superhero in bright tights saving the world from despotic villains and crackpot megalomaniacs. While the latest incarnation “Superman Returns” is hardly the first time we have seen a live action portrayal of the famed Superman from Krypton, it is the first major motion picture to feature the most famous of all heroes in almost twenty years.

So, of course that means to the bean counters in charge, a whole new franchise is opening up with the latest re-imagining, helmed by Bryan Singer and featuring a lead turn by our future husband, relative newbie Brandon Routh as Supes. Although, our boy Brandon is hardly the first hunk to slap on the famed pair of tights.
Superman made his live action debut way back in 1939 at the famous World’s Fair held right in our beloved New York City. How well we remember traipsing betwixt the Trylon and the Perisphere with our gal pal Lottie Hinkelgruber, when Lottie let out a shriek that could blindside a mule once she cast her peepers on that hambone actor Ray Middleton, dressed as the Man of Tomorrow!

The movies would discover the eternal appeal of a buff man in a flowing cape with Kirk Alyn as Supes and Noel Neill as Lois Lane, headlining the popular 1940s movie serial, thrilling youngsters with their daring exploits.

George Reeves would take over for the early 1950s film and television appearances, with Phyllis Coates as Lois Lane in the first season prior to Noel Neill reclaiming her trademark role as the plucky girl reporter and shameless man chaser.

From animated shorts to newspaper comic strips to the Great White Way, the adventures of the last son of Krypton would firmly enter the realm of mythology by the time Richard Donner directed the now legendary major motion picture debut in 1978. Starring a veritable who’s who of Oscar friendly stars and penned by Mario Puzo of all people, the film launched the career of the then unknown Christopher Reeve who would come to be recognized the world over as the Superman for the Ages.

Television again hosted the next generation of Superman’s exploits with Dean Cain and media whore Teri Hatcher playing media whore Lois Lane in “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman”. And the Superboy franchise would finally begin to take off with the 1980s television show featuring John Haymes Newton and later Gerard Christopher as the Boy of Steel.

But it would take the strapping hunky charms of Tom Welling as the WB’s teenage heartthrob Clark Kent in “Smallville” to finally establish a successful tween market.

To most fanboys and moviegoers the world over, the late Christopher Reeve will always be their cinematic Superman. The latest film is dedicated to his memory and one can sense Bryan Singer’s admiration throughout. And we applaud that. Both “Superman” and “Superman II” recreated the world of the comic book icon and transformed the legend to cinematic terms that worked beautifully. The casting of Christopher Reeve in the title role and a pre-dumpster diving Margot Kidder as Lois Lane was not only spot on – but magical in many moments. What the first two films did so well was establish a world filled with the possibility that a man could indeed fly.

Bryan Singer sets his revamp, if you will five years after the second film. Maintaining many visual references, included a resurrected ghostly image and voiceover by the late Marlon Brando who once again appears as Superman’s father, Jor-El. From the opening credits, which pay homage their cinematic forefather to the famous theme composed by John Williams almost thirty years ago – this film sets out to bask in the celluloid Superman legacy.

It is therefore with a mixed reaction of pleasure and remorse that we admit they almost succeed in supplanting the famed 70s version. Bryan Singer was correct in ditching the “X-Men” franchise for the opportunity to plant his moniker on the big red one. (Metaphorically speaking, get your minds out of the gutter.) His grandiose dreams and attention to detail are to be applauded. From the famed costumes wink to its origins in the 1930s, to the gravitas he manages to infuse the dazzling flight sequences with – here is a director that has every intention to get every damn shot right. The pity is when he fails, and that is more in the wandering script choices and lackluster central storyline.

The casting thankfully succeeds surprisingly well, but never manages to equal the chemistry supplied by the originals. Brandon Routh may not be winning any Oscars for his portrayal, but then again neither was Mr. Reeves. What is needed for the role of Superman is less of great acting talent and more of an imposing physique and presence. Mr. Routh has both, and is only missing that extra quality that brought Christopher Reeve such long lasting fame. Star quality. Although he does handle the Clark Kent charmingly doofus persona in a deft manner.

As Superman’s most famed arch nemesis, Lex Luthortwo time Oscar winner, Kevin Spacey alternates from oozing smarmy evil to full out scenery chewing. Which is of course precisely what the role requires. What else would we expect from a grown man whose hatred of a flying muscled hunk borders on being a knife wielding stalker. (Or Kryptonite shard wielding stalker as the case may be.)
And as the long suffering but resourceful Lois Lane, Kate Bosworth dyes her trademark blonde tresses and provides a nicely modulated if not stellar turn. At first we were hesitant of her casting, picturing her to be more the Sandra Dee type she eschewed well enough in Spacey’s Bobby Darin biopic. She manages to maintain the believability required to sell the fantasy, although we question her being old enough to be the mother of the five year old child she now has. (Was she all of eighteen when Superman left for the final frontier?)

The supporting players are an uneven gang of vets and newbies. On the veteran front we have Frank Langella’s majestically imposing editor-in-chief portrayal of Perry White. Worlds away from the desk pounding, cigar chomping stock character in the comics that was nailed spot on in the original by famed child actor turned character pro, Jackie Cooper.

As Supes / Clark’s devotedly doting foster mother, Oscar winner Eva Marie Saint brings her considerable talent to bear on the tenderest scenes back on the old homestead.

And as Superman’s nerdy, camera toting bestest pal, Jimmy Olsen - Sam Huntington rarely rises above collegiate acting requirements, but is thankfully brief in his attempts at humor. (And that camera ain't helping those "Gay Superman / Phallic Symbol" internet rumors, any.) In contrast, it was lovely to see the 1950s TV Jimmy Olsen - Jack Larson in a brief cameo as a neighborhood bartender.

The real surprise here is Parker Posey as Luthor’s moll. Taking a tip from Valerie Perrine in the 70s version, she brings a degree of sexy malignancy coupled with a completely unnecessary wardrobe culled from central casting circa 1946: veils, furs, chunky heels and lapdog. And most shocking of all, manages to pull it off! (Not the wardrobe, you pervs.) Clutching a bottle of Grey Goose (A gal after our own heart, that Kitty Kowalski!), and juggling a martini glass overbrimming with stuffed olives her performance could easily have transgressed into full on camp mode, but she manages to pull it in long enough to deliver her requisite zingers and a nice touch of emotion. Brava, Parker!

We were thrilled to see the original cape chasing girl reporter, Noel Neill from the 1940s appear in a well done cameo as the fabulously wealthy invalid who falls hook line and sinker for Lex’s scheme to finance his latest plot to conquer the world. And in a bizarre twist or homage to the original, this too involves a real estate scheme. Albeit an alien-technology-misabused-to-destroy-the-North-American-Eastern-Shoreline-reality-scheme, but in a comic book flick . . . why not?

What Bryan Singer does exceedingly well in this movie is to frame the action sequences and special effects in general with a gravity and force that is truly equal to the Man of Steel’s famed reputation. And this film relies on the strength of the Superman myth and our belief that he is the epitome of a super-hero. For when the film begins, Superman has been missing for five years. We learn he has gone to investigate the possible existence of the remains of his long dead homeworld, Krypton. Upon his return, he attempts to ease back into his life as “a mild-mannered” reporter by day, superhero by trade.

Unfortunately for our hero, his heart is bruised to find his beloved Lois in a relationship with the finely chiseled but sadly wasted James Marsden as Perry White’s nephew. Supes is also a tad mystified at the appearance of a five year old boy, who calls Lois mommy but is not quite sure who his daddy might be. Hmmmmm. Shades of “Lace”? Even worse for our high flying guy is the plot hatched by Lex Luthor to use Superman’s own Kryptonian technology to conquer the world. While Bryan Singer does an admirable job in attempting to balance the soap opera “who’s your daddy” storyline with the “War of the Worlds” scenario, they both ultimately play second fiddle to the bigger show. Superman himself.

For this film to succeed, we need to believe in the power of a man who can fly, shoot laser beams (Okay, you fanboy nerds, “Heat Vision” – there, are you happy now?) and x-rays from his baby blues, toss airplanes around like ping pong balls and still find time to save kittens stuck up in a tree. When it comes to the special effects, the film is dazzling. The flight scenes, in particular the ones at night have a gorgeous look and believability to them. The midair rescue of an endangered airplane is breathtaking in its camera angles and judicious editing. It is only in the plotting of Earth shattering events, that the film begins to resemble a lost episode from the Dean Cain years. We simply don’t care about Lex’s evil ploy. Sure, he’ll wipe out millions of lives but all for the sake of beachfront property? Jesus, Lex. Just buy a share in the Pines with Bryan, Jack and Dame Ian and call it a day.

The saving grace is Bryan Singer’s ability to keep a film moving along at a brisk pace, and despite the two and a half hour running time we were never bored. And certainly with the delicious Brandon Routh and some solid supporting work, the actors meshed well enough with their comic book counterparts to sell the material. The only thing missing was the sense of grandeur of the original or those wonderful goose-pimply feelings of watching the legend come to life. Like we felt way back in 1978. We did indeed believe “a man can fly”. Or maybe it was the LSD? Who knows? While we admire Bryan for his gumption and some of his past work, what the Superman mythos really needed was a director like Peter Jackson or Steven Spielberg – one that can handle the digital effects, imbue the film with high powered action sequences and the all important sense of awe. Here, like Supes’ Clark Kent persona we just kind of felt “awwww, shucks”. Bless you all!

Brandon Routh as Clark Kent / Superman
Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor
Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane
James Marsden as Richard White
Parker Posey as Kitty Kowalski
Frank Langella as Perry White
Sam Huntington as Jimmy Olsen
Eva Marie Saint as Martha Kent
Tristan Lake Leabu as Jason White
Jack Larson as Bo the Bartender
Noel Neill as Gertrude Vanderworth
Stephan Bender as Young Clark Kent

Directed by Bryan Singer
Screenplay by Michael Dougherty & Dan Harris
Story by Bryan Singer, Michael Dougherty & Dan Harris
Superman created by Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster

Cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel
Film Editing by Elliot Graham & John Ottman
Original Music by John Ottman
Superman’s Theme by John Williams
Art Direction by Hugh Bateup, Damien Drew, Lawrence A. Hubbs, Catherine Mansill, John Pryce-Jones & Charlie Revai
Set Decoration by Brian Dusting
Costume Design by Louise Mingenbach

Friday, June 23, 2006

The Road to Guantánamo - Movie Review

The Road to Guantánamo 2006

The prolific British auteur Michael Winterbottom has scored again. And with naught but a few months passing since his sharp and witty movie-within-a-movie antics of “Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story”! This time round he has co-helmed the docu-drama account of the Tipton Three, a trio of British lads whose unfortunate timing and less than razor sharp intelligence ended up entrapping them at the infamous Guantánamo Bay U.S. Military Gulag / Naval Base.

The film uses a technique popularized within the field of documentary: on camera interviews with the actual participants and actors portraying past events that previously went unfilmed. Since the film’s second half is concerned with the systematic imprisonment, interrogation, torturing and brutality that allegedly occurs under the U.S. military’s watch, we somehow doubted the filmmakers would have been allowed to use any actual footage. What emerges from this amalgamation is a striking indictment of the “War on Terror” and its hidden or muffled byways. While we praise Michael Winterbottom for his knowing camera and extremely judicious film editing technique, we must also mention that this time around he gives co-directing credit to Mat Whitecross, his fellow editor.

The Tipton Three made worldwide news coverage in 2004 with their denunciation of . . . you might want to sit down for this one . . . harsh treatment by U.S. soldiers while being held prisoners at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba. How the United States came to hold a military base in a country they allegedly denounce as the last bastion of the Communist Power is a much longer and more bizarre story that we won’t get into, but is certainly worth investigating.

The first half of the film concerns their naïve collective venture into a return trip to their homeland of Pakistan for a chum’s wedding. During their relatively brief sojourn back to their mother land, they decide to venture into Afghanistan to check things out and to see if they can offer some help to the suffering populace facing the retribution of the attacks of September 11, 2001. And for many people including ourselves this is the make or break point of the storyline. How any young men, regardless of nationality could be so completely dimwitted to attempt to sneak into what was basically a War Zone replete with apocalyptic daily bombings, is a question we had to ask. The answer is simple. As recounted by the actual Tipton Three, or rather as the audience observes – these three blokes are definitely at the lower end of the intelligence food chain. Slightly higher than a mollusk but still lower than your average goldfish.

Now, normally we stay away from any cinematic retelling of human stupidity, but what makes the first half of this film the most fascinating, riveting and just plain kick ass storytelling is the directing skills of Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross. Their recreations of the events leading up to their capture alongside a Taliban infused convey is nothing short of brilliant. Alternating documentary footage of the war time suffering with their recreation of events – all of it underscored by a pulsating musical score that sets us on edge and continues to underline the consistently perilous landscape. This is the most basic genius of a director duo who knows how to grab us by the privates and hold our attention at breakneck speed.

The feeling, texture and scope of this film makes it by far the best thing to come down the pike this year. The cast of relative unknowns who portray the real participants are uniformly fine in their insipid camaraderie and wide eyed naïveté. The comedy of horrors they encounter once they enter Afghanistan and begin to witness the power of the devastation around them is mesmerizing. Unfortunately for the quartet of young men (Yes, there were four original friends. We will leave it to the viewer to witness how the four became the three.), and even worse for the viewers, once they attempt to return to Pakistan they decide to wing it by latching onto the nearest system of transportation. In this case it is a convoy of vehicles filled to the turban with Taliban rebels. Bad choice indeed.

Once captured by the Northern Alliance, they are turned over to the U.S. military as potentially dangerous terrorists and promptly shipped off to Guantánamo where their days and nights of torture begin. And here is where the film falters. For while we have no doubt that a Naval Base run by young soldiers with only a passing knowledge of the world around them during a “wartime” situation is probably not the getaway island weekend most of us dream about, it is also a sharp shift in storytelling gears that never quite matches up to the first half of the film. Forced to sit chained in a crouching position in the blistering sun while being completely covered head to toe, shoved into a two by two chain link cell with a bucket of water to drink and another as a privy, routinely beaten for daring to utter one syllable, dragged off to interrogations where their denials are met with further physical violence – it not only becomes too much for us, but also begins to lose its steam dramatically.

Perhaps knowing the outcome (after all, the actual men are narrating this tale – it ain’t too hard to figure out they make it out alright.) contributes to diminishing our edge of the seat excitement with the proceedings, or perhaps the scenes of imprisonment and torture point up all too quickly their utter ineptitude in being able to explain their original intentions or motivations. It’s like “Forrest Gump” meets “The Battle of Algiers”. Or perhaps they were indeed terrorists and this is the ultimate shaggy-dog story. We tend to believe the particulars of their case. If for nothing else than to do defend the age old belief that the remarkable notion of being in the wrong place at the wrong time and being an incredible idiot will always get you into trouble.

The film has already garnered much praise for its visceral retelling of the events, and has started to chalk up the awards beginning with its Silver Bear for Best Direction by Messrs. Winterbottom and Whitecross at this year’s Berlin Film Festival. While the second half of the film falters a bit, the first half is so incredible we whole heartedly agree with the Berlin Film Festival's assessment and encourage you to venture forth and spend some time with three blokes who have entered the latest phase of history as sometimes martyrs, oft times idiots. And thank God that after the detailed horrors of the second half, the directors are smart enough to wrap the film up with a surprisingly gentle and emotional ending that is not only fitting, but honest.

If this film has a solid point to make it is probably this. Defending freedom and spreading the notion of Democracy abroad can take some nasty side turns along the way. The question remains: “How far are you willing to sacrifice democracy and freedom in order to protect it?” If we choose to ignore the plight of the Tipton Three, well then we pray on your next vacation on some tropical isle your room service is cold and the cable doesn’t work. Surely that will get Americans riled up enough to investigate the “alleged” goings on at Guantánamo Bay. Bless you all!

Directed by Michael Winterbottom & Mat Whitecross

Riz Ahmed as Shafiq
Farhad Harun as Ruhel
Waqar Siddiqui as Monir
Afran Usman as Asif
Shahid Iqbal as Zahid
Ruhel Ahmed as Himself
Asif Iqbal as Himself
Shafiq Rasul as Himself
Kieran O’Brien – Voice Over

Cinematography by Marcel Zyskind
Film Editing by Mat Whitecross & Michael Winterbottom
Original Music by Harry Escott & Molly Nyman
Production Design by Mark Digby
Special Effects by Mohsen Ruzbahani
Visual Effects by Michelle Camp, Adam Garner & Dan Sollis