July 23, 2006

Superman Returns

Superman Remade

Why can't Superman just fight crime for ninety minutes?

(AMC Burlington) Bryan Singer took on a lot of responsibility in restarting a 20-year dormant feature film franchise. Unfortunately, he equals "important for the stockholders" with "important movie about Superman", and as a result, this new Superman, which should be fun and breathtaking and exciting and fun, is Important with a capital I, which equals ponderous and talky and touchy-feely. There's a lot of drama to be mined from Superman: the last survivor of his planet, alone on Earth where he is different from everyone else, trying to find love with a woman who can never know the real man in the suit? This is all good stuff, but I didn't pay $10 for 150 minutes of this. I want to see more than just Superman feeling lonely. Perhaps to make up for the romance and chit chat, it's difficult to resist the tendency to make Supes' feats oversized: Everyone in the movies and TV can kick a door down or bend an iron bar into a pretzel, but only Superman can reattach California to the continental shelf, or spin the planet backwards. This super-sizing of his crime fighting removes all the fun from his work. Who wants to see Superman lifting a billion tons of rock over his head, when he could be throwing Emperor Zod across Times Square? I am surprised that Singer, who was so sure-footed in his two X-Men movies, has stumbled into Boring Metropolis.

supermanreturnsThe main crime-fighting storyline is a remake of the original 1977 Superman: The Movie: Lex Luthor hatches a scheme to create new valuable real estate for his own gain. Luthor steals Kryptonite from a museum to kill Superman with. The rest of the movie is tied up with the love triangle between Lois Lane, Superman, and Lane's fiance Richard (James Marsden). Lane has put aside her love for Superman when he left Earth five years previous, and now she's in a snit because he left "without saying goodbye". Fer Crissake, he's Superman! If you want to love a superhero with a social secretary, try Batman-- he has Alfred around to send regrets to Vicki Vale, et al.

Is Superman Uncool?

In Bryan Singer's new resurrection of the Superman franchise, Lois Lane has set aside her love for Supes and started a family with another reporter (James Marsden), as Superman has been gone from Earth for five years. Lane wins the Pulitzer Prize for her editorial Why The World Doesn't Need Superman. Before we can say why, I would like to ask the question Does The World Need Superman?

It seems like Kal-El has been gone for a lot longer than five years-- it's been twenty years since the Superman movie franchise ended with a whimper in 1986 with Superman IV: The One With Atomic Man. Three years after that, Tim Burton's Batman began a new comic-book hero era in theaters, and the flood of superhero movies has diluted the potency of caped hero stories. In the 20 years since Gene Hackman last donned the bald cap, most every super hero you have ever heard of has had a movie made about them.

Perhaps Superman is boring? He's a goody-two shoes Patriot with no dark side, no human foibles, and no social life. Comic book writer Frank Miller (The Dark Knight Returns, The Dark Knight Strikes Back), portrays Superman as a single-minded, mildly dense, blindly obedient servant to the American government. Maybe we feel like we know Superman too well, that there's no new story to tell? Perhaps Superman is too powerful? Is it too hard to find a worthy adversary for him?

Superman Lives Returns: Coming Soon Since 1998

Meanwhile, Warner Brothers has been trying to make a new Superman movie for a decade. Why has it taken a decade to get Superman to fly? Firstly, to make a Superman movie on a scale worthy of the material, you have to spend a lot of money. You can't skimp on the enormousness of a Superman movie and expect people to come back again and again. Just look at the bargain-priced Fantastic Four movie to see a lack of spectacle. If you're going to spend $200,000,000 on one movie, the suits were rightfully worried about finding the right script, a dependable director, and the right Superman. Thirdly, the studio was scared of screwing up a franchise which had the potential to be a huge moneymaker. Superman has instant name-recognition around the planet, every knows and loves him, and the characters and stories of Superman are rich and deep. The responsibility starts to weigh on you, yes?

Bust A Block That Hasn't Been Busted Before

As of July 24, Superman Returns (released June 28) has grossed $178 million in the United States, while Pirates 2 (released July 7) has $322 million. Each movie cost over $200 million to produce and promote, and that money shows on screen. What's sad is that both movies could have made more money if they had not come out a week apart. Perhaps Hollywood economists would not agree, but wouldn't Superman Returns have been more successful without strong competition from Captain Jack Sparrow, et al? Why not drop this blockbuster on a un-busted block? How about the spring? If a diminishing-returns sequel like Mission: Impossible 3 can make $122 million in early May (and June), why can't a "summer" blockbuster come out in late April? or March? Haven't you ever gone to the movies in the spring, paying $10 to see underwhelming features like The Pink Panther, Eight Below, V for Vendetta, or Underworld: Evolution? Before the feature, you see a trailer for a summer blockbuster like Superman Returns. By the time the trailer is over, you're so excited about seeing Superman fly with 21st century effects, that you've forgotten what feature you paid to watch. And when you do remember, you sadly regret that you can't watch the blockbuster instead? Here's a crazy idea: Release the summer blockbuster in the spring, and watch the eager moviegoers thank you by handing over their Hamiltons by the handful.

July 16, 2006

Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Man's Chest

pirates3The movie we paid $6.75 to see on Sunday afternoon was a funny, scary, exciting, and visually spectacular pirate adventure... hidden within a overly-long, needlessly dense, unnecessarily elaborate 150-minute movie. Director Gore Verbinski entered the editing room with enough material to make a great summer movie. Unfortunately, thanks to time constraints, he didn't have enough time to sculpt that movie out of the raw celluloid. What we are left with, is a movie with too many plot threads, one or two too many "set pieces", and several too many characters. (Showcase Cinemas Woburn)

Plot Threads

  1. Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander) wants to control all commerce in the Carribean, and needs Jack Sparrow's magic compass to do it;
  2. Will and Elizabeth are sentenced to death unless Will can convince Jack to trade the compass for their pardon;
  3. Jack Sparrow must pay his debt to Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) or find a way to cheat Jones instead;
  4. Former Commodore Norrington will do anything to regain his honor and his commission;
  5. Elizabeth must escape from prison and stow away on another ship in order to catch up with Will Turner. At the same time, she struggles with her desire to become a pirate, and a possible romantic attraction to Jack Sparrow.
  6. Will Turner must kill Davy Jones in order to save his father, "Bootstrap" Bill Turner (Stellan SkarsgÄrd), from eternal servitude aboard Jones's Flying Dutchman. Is there any wonder why this movie clocks in at two and a half hours?

Set Pieces

All the action sequences are well made, and are entertaining, thrilling, and funny. There's just too many of them. In the last third of the movie, Jack, Will, and Norrington all fight each other to acquire a key to the Dead Man's Chest of the title. In the process, they take a crazy ride on a old mill wheel, which rolls across the jungle landscape. This is far too similar to the "bone-cage-ball" ride down a different jungle hillside in the first third of the movie. By the time the mill wheel crashes on the beach, I was ready for Davy Jones to show up already. Once the threesome pop out of the mill wheel, they all swordfight each other simultaneously. I think this was meant to "top" any previous swordfight, but it simply highlights the unnecessary complication of the story. Sure, Jack Davenport is a good actor, but did we need him tagging along through half the movie?

Too Many Characters

Sequels inevitably suffer from "reunion-itis", where the writers throw into Movie 2 familiar characters from Movie 1, even if there's no plausible reason to include them. Louis Tully in Ghostbusters 2, The Donkey in Shrek 2, and Leo Getz in Lethal Weapon 3 and 4 are good examples. The good news is, the Laurel-and-Hardy pirates (the Pirate With the Wooden Eye and the Bald One) are funnier than they were in Movie 1, but every scene dedicated to them slows down the movie. Perhaps the inclusion of Lord Beckett will pay off in Movie 3, but in Movie 2, he seems to exist solely to give Will and Elizabeth motivation to chase Jack Sparrow across the Carribean.

The Good News

is that the movie's effects are more visually stunning and opulent than any movie I have ever seen. The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Star Wars prequel trilogies use equally impressive effects, but for verisimilitude. Davy Jones and his condemned crew of encrusted sea-creature pirates are simply stunning. Our jaws were dropped for the entire second half of the movie- we were stunned at the time and money spent to plaster the screen with such lavishly rendered and imaginative characters. The phrase "no expense was spared" never seemed so appropriate. Talk about getting your money's worth: Every penny of the $10-$12 people pay for movie tickets these days is right up there on screen.

What's Next

Gore Verbinski reports that principal photography for #3, At World's End, is only 60% done. Let's all hope he gets more time in the editing studio before it hits theaters next Memorial Day.

July 7, 2006

Silent Film Double Feature

grandmasboyGrandma's Boy (1922) and Sherlock Jr. (1924) • Original Score Performed by Ben Model • Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, Great Barrington, MA • A novel way to end the dry spell for moviegoing. On our Berkshires honeymoon, we visited Great Barrington, MA (just take the Pike for two hours and turn left) and thoroughly enjoyed two silent comedies from Harold Lloyd (the bespectacled guy who hangs from the clock face) and Buster Keaton (the guy who nearly gets crushed by a house). Both films were wonderfully engaging and funny. Harold Lloyd shows genius in conveying so much emotion, passion, and humor without sound or dialogue. Buster Keaton is more inward and detached, but a master of physical comedy. The physical humor and breathtaking stunts were a real pleasure. The two kids behind us in the theater couldn't stop laughing as cowardly geek Harold Lloyd fought and wrestled the local bully all over the barnyard. It was a treat to watch the stars of the movie really risk their skins doing their own stunts. Ben Model's live organ score was skilled and seamless.

NOTE: These are the first silent films I have seen in the theater, marking a new "Oldest Feature Film" record in this diary (It Happened One Night [1934] is the next oldest). Actually, I think I have seen at least one of the first seven Marx Brothers movies (1929 through 1937) in the theater, but I don't have any memory (or record) of which I saw on TV or in the theater.

July 2, 2006

June 2006: The Dry Spell

What were Emily and I doing for over five weeks? We weren't going to the movies, that's for sure. We were planning our wedding! Movies we missed in the theater include Mission: Impossible III, Cars, The Break-Up, A Prarie Home Companion, and Nacho Libre. It doesn't sound like we missed too much, eh?

Our Wedding Favor Music Mix

It was surprisingly hard to select and agree on 80 minutes worth of music that was personal, appropriate, and fit well together. Artists that are our favorites, like Bruce Springsteen, didn't quite fit. On the other hand, bands which are barely on our radar (Haircut 100) made it when the song was just perfect for the moment. Read on for more about our wedding favor mix...
1. “Across The Universe” The Beatles • It was tough picking just one song. This is Emily’s favorite.
2. “I Love Every Little Thing About You” Stevie Wonder • I once bought three Stevie Wonder CDs in one day, and lived to tell the tale.
3. “Radio Sweetheart” Elvis Costello • We both love Elvis, and Emily used this song at the start of her college radio show.
4. “Fearless Love” Bonnie Raitt • This is an old favorite – I heard it as background music in the movie Sideways.
5. “Fair” Ben Folds Five • If our love for music were a Venn diagram, Ben Folds would be at the center of the overlap. We actually attended the same BF concert two months before we met. A very When Harry Met Sally moment, wouldn't you say?
6. "Kiss On My List" Daryl Hall & John Oates • The first cassette I bought from the Record & Tape Club was Hall & Oates Rock 'n' Soul Pt. 1. Of course, I still have the tape.
7. "Come Rain Or Come Shine" Ella Fitzgerald • For Emily, it’s impossible to pick a favorite American songbook standard, but it had to be Ella.
8. “Sunday Morning” Maroon Five • This song sounds like the soundtrack to our own screwball romantic comedy.
9. “Black Coffee In Bed” Squeeze (live 1990) • Yes, this is a breakup song, but it means a lot to us. I wrote in my online personal ad that my "most humbling moment" was when I couldn't hit the high notes in this song anymore! Emily was naturally charmed, and the rest is history.
10. “I’ll Be Your Mirror” Clem Snide • A cover version of Emily’s favorite Velvet Underground song.
11. “Lovely Day” Bill Withers • The soul classic that also reminds Emily of rollerskating up and down the driveway, circa 1982.
12. “What A Fool Believes” The Doobie Brothers • Song of the Year from 1979, this one goes out to Miss Amy Armstrong, our fellow Michael McDonald-o-phile!
13. “The Good Part” Wilco (live) • On our second date, we went to see a documentary about Emily’s favorite band. It's hard to find a Wilco song with a positive outlook on love, but this fits the bill.
14. “The Painter” Neil Young • From the album Prairie Wind, we first heard this in the amazing concert film Neil Young: Heart of Gold.
15. “This Old Heart Of Mine” The Isley Brothers • We had to include some Motown here, and Nat has a soft spot for this 1965 hit as it's prominently featured in his favorite “Moonlighting” episode!
16. "Love Plus One" Haircut 100 • This song sounds like the soundtrack to our own John Hughes 80’s teen drama.
17. “Drive South” John Hiatt • I once got John Hiatt’s autograph, but I was too nervous to engage him in conversation, can you believe it?
18. “Waiting For My Real Life To Begin” Colin Hay is the lead singer from Men At Work, a teenage favorite for both me & Em, all grown up here.
19. “Delirious Love” Neil Diamond • Another classic from our youth reincarnated!
20. “Age of Aquarius/Let The Sun Shine” featuring the Cast of The Forty-Year-Old Virgin • Feel free to sing along, just like the end of the movie...

Wedding Reception Background Music

When planning our wedding reception, my wife and I decided to omit dancing. We were more interested in the "family and friends reunion" reception than the "dance party" reception. We decided to hire a classical guitarist for the "cocktail" hour, followed by background music.
Emily and I had a lot of fun putting this playlist together. It's Nat & Em's Greatest Mellow Hits 1940-2006! There are a lot of covers of popular songs on here- it's a nice way to include a fresh take on an overplayed hit song. With the Amazon MP3 store and iTunes, it's easier than ever to browse for a cool cover song, or seek out that long-lost nugget, without paying for a full CD.
  1. This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody) • Shawn Colvin
  2. She's No Lady (She's My Wife) • Lyle Lovett (live)
  3. I.G.Y. (International Geophysical Year) • Donald Fagen
  4. Tupelo Honey • Cassandra Wilson
  5. Magic In The Air • Badly Drawn Boy
  6. As Time Goes By • Billie Holiday
  7. Your Sweet Voice • Matthew Sweet
  8. God Only Knows • The Beach Boys
  9. A Mi Manera (My Way) • The Gypsy Kings
  10. Words • Ellis Paul
  11. Landslide • Fleetwood Mac
  12. Love and Some Verses • Iron & Wine
  13. Baby Now That I've Found You • Alison Krauss & Union Station
  14. Better Be Home Soon • Crowded House
  15. The One I Love • David Gray
  16. Gee Baby, Ain't I Good To You? • Diana Krall
  17. Rain King (live, acoustic) • Counting Crows
  18. Calico Skies • Paul McCartney
  19. Come and Find Me • Josh Ritter
  20. Ooh La La • The Faces
  21. Pink Moon • Nick Drake
  22. I Will • Alison Krauss & Tony Furtado
  23. Tonight You Belong To Me • What I really wanted was the recording in the movie The Jerk where Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters sing on the beach. I found this very similar version by Eddie Montana instead.
  24. You Belong To Me • Patsy Cline
  25. Stranded • If you insist on including Van Morrison in your wedding, please select one of his dozens of great ballads that are NOT "Have I Told You Lately"!
  26. Razor Love • Neil Young
  27. They Can't Take That Away From Me • Lisa Stansfield
  28. Real Love • John Lennon recorded this as a demo only. It first appeared in the documentary John Lennon Imagine in 1988, and was later transformed into a Beatles reunion track in 1995.
  29. Green Eyes • Coldplay
  30. Honeymoon Suite • Suzanne Vega
  31. More Than This • Charlie Hunger Quartet, featuring Norah Jones
  32. One on One • Hall & Oates
  33. Nightswimming • R.E.M.
  34. When You Wake Up Feeling Old • Wilco
  35. It Had To Be You • Billie Holiday
  36. Sea of Love • The Honeydrippers
  37. She Will Have Her Way • Neil Finn
  38. Last Train to Clarksville • Cassandra Wilson
  39. Runaway Feeling • The Thorns
  40. Conceived • Beth Orton
  41. Color My World • This totally retro Chicago song was my in-law's wedding song.
  42. The Long and Winding Road • This version of The Beatles' classic is from the Let It Be Naked album, which strips away Phil Spector's Wall Of Sound strings and choir tracks, thank goodness!