Friday, December 08, 2006

Quick Notes on Some Recent Screenings

SUPERMAN RETURNS (Warner Home Video, 2006)
Here's a good argument against overinflating what was intended to be pulp entertainment into "myth." This delusion of grandeur takes itself so seriously that it squeezes out nearly all of the elements that have made Superman the perennial favorite all-American comic book superhero. The wholesomeness, optimism, upbeat quality of the classic comic are gone, replaced by a post-Marvel self-conscious and introspective Superman (Brandon Routh), a snappily self-confident Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey), a badly miscast Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth? when they've got Parker Posey in the same picture?) who has married another man and given birth during a mostly unexplained period of absence by the Man of Steel, and Frank Langella as the blandest Perry White on record. Indeed, the film dares to look over the head of its own hero, denying us several of the basic pleasures required of a Superman movie: when Clark Kent first pulls his shirt open in an identity change, the "S" is cropped offscreen. Even the formerly bold red colors of Superman's costume have soured to a kind of burnt sienna brown. Routh doesn't convince me as Superman, but he's a talented mimic of Christopher Reeve's Clark Kent. As a whole, the movie is too downbeat, too complicated, essentially self-destructive, with a particularly unhappy turn of events concerning Lois as the mother of Earth's first Krypto-American, which serves no purpose but to make Superman more human and less rigorously moral -- a diluted symbol of heroism. Rather than a bid for a renewed franchise, I see this as symptomatic product of a society ashamed, on some level, of being American.

A SCANNER DARKLY (Warner Home Video, 2006)
I blogged about the first 23 minutes of this movie earlier in the year, after seeing them online. My reaction to the entire feature is not dramatically unlike what I thought of the free sample: the technique is brilliant, somehow very right for the story though unexpected, but I feel the unrotoscoped footage would have been the more truly cinematic, and possibly more emotional experience. As much is happening on the surface as below it, to the extent where camera composition and editing seem comparatively random and unimportant. The protagonist is revealed as Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) right away, while the Philip K. Dick novel, as I recall, reveals the narrator's identity much later, inspiring one to go back and re-read the previous pages once armed with the knowledge of who among the characters the undercover narrator is. Nevertheless, the revelation of Bob's boss's identity is well-handled and the film is a legitimately psychedelic, multi-tiered experience, easily the most "phildickian" of Dick's screen adaptations. It's the movie I would most want Dick himself to see in the unlikely event of his resurrection -- even moreso than BLADE RUNNER -- but I find myself much more guarded about whether or not I really like it. Special kudos to Robert Downey Jr., though, who's excellent here.

THE BLACK ROOM (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 1935)
This feature, included in Sony's ICONS OF HORROR COLLECTION - BORIS KARLOFF set, is the most important new classic horror release of the year. This is very much Karloff's DEAD RINGERS, as he plays two 19th century brothers born to the barony of a small European country; the elder one, given the title of Baron, grows into a murderous womanizer, while the other matures into a meek gentleman. In order to save his own neck, the Baron confers his title to his respected brother and promises to leave town, but then kills his brother and assumes his place in the world. We get three of Karloff's finest performances in one picture, along with some of the best dialogue he ever had, and the twinning effects are stunning -- the equal of those in DEAD RINGERS, made 50 years later, with many of Karloff's screen-sharing moments captured in astonishing dolly shots. I can't help thinking that Ennio De Concini must have seen this movie before scripting Mario Bava's BLACK SUNDAY, as many of the same elements are here -- the good and evil twins, the period setting, the family curse, the pit in the floor, the secret compartment built into the rear wall of the castle's fireplace. And the recently deceased Marian Marsh, so memorable as Trilby in SVENGALI (1931), is charming here too.

CLERKS II (Weinstein Company, 2006)
I can't imagine what could have provoked the 8-minute standing ovation at Cannes; there are maybe four or five chuckles in the picture and a very mild (and fairly unconvincing) love story whose only real sparks come from Rosario Dawson, who deserves better. The satirical aspects of the Mooby's fastfood restaurant are sophomoric, and the story is limp and meandering when it's not simply clich├ęd or leaning on the outrageousness button. I thought CHASING AMY was outstanding, thanks mostly to Jason Lee and Joey Lauren Adams but also to a very feeling and funny script, and I very much enjoyed Kevin's entertaining way with a story in AN EVENING WITH KEVIN SMITH, but the rest of Smith's work frankly leaves me scratching my head. This is kind of like Kevin remaking Romero's THERE'S ALWAYS VANILLA as THERE'S ALWAYS DONKEY SPUNK -- and the whole "Do I love her, or do I love her? Uh-oh, this one's pregnant" idea was old then. That Smith opens the DVD by declaring this as his favorite of all his films doesn't make me feel too optimistic or curious about what he may still have up his sleeve.

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