Another summer, another time to play critical archvillain to a blockbuster superhero. Seriously, I'm not even done sorting through the Batman Begins hate-mail when along comes the Man of Steel to again turn me into Old Man Potter. To be fair, Superman Returns at least doesn't try to use DC comix to tell me about the Darkness of the Soul of Man or posit Spider-Man as Hamlet; indeed, filmmaker Bryan Singer is at pains to reverentially stick to the original mythology, or, at least, the mythology that's burned into the public's consciousness via the fondly recalled 1978 Richard Donner flick. No ironic revisionism -- the destruction of Krypton sends the credits soaring through the solar system, guided by a retooling of John Williams' score until crashing into the Kent farm somewhere in the Midwest (or wherever Smallville takes place). Elderly Ma Kent (Eva Marie Saint) examines the smoldering meteor-spaceship, and Kal-El a.k.a. Clark Kent a.k.a. Superman (Brandon Routh) appears, not a boy lifting trucks but already a grown slab of beefcake. The Return is from a five year search for his home planet, meaning he's been gone since 2001 (9/11 folks, start your theorizing); the homecoming at the Daily Planet is bittersweet, since Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has long settled with a family and scooped a Pulitzer with an article titled "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman." Oh yeah, and the world is in danger, too.
Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) is out and about, with a fortune from his gigolo stint "pleasuring" a widow; the villain raids his nemesis' crystal hideout (Marlon Brando is briefly resurrected out of unused footage from the original), references Prometheus and plans to raise Atlantis, his new continent to be erected on kryptonite. For his own part, Superman, following all his "soul-searching," has a bit of brooder to go with the Cary-Grant-in-tights routine, dolefully levitating in the atmosphere and soaking up countless distraught voices before free-falling back to Earth in need of resurrection. Despite the misplaced gravitas, Singer scores a few CGI coups with the visual fluency he fine-tuned in the X-Men flicks: a moment of lyrical-ominous weightlessness, lasting about four seconds, is sneaked into the noise of the first airplane-rescuing set piece, and Louis sets aside the stigma of the bad break-up for a disarming waltz with Superman in the skies (she doffs her heels, steps onto his super shoes, and up they go into the blue-screen equivalent of the Astaire-Rogers dance-as-sex). What Singer doesn't carry over from those films is any sense of personal engagement beyond a fan-boyish veneration that, digitalized to death, is more stolid than awe-inspiring. Routh looks resplendent with the "S" imprinted on his chest, kind of Tom Cruiseish but sincere and vulnerable; Parker Posey, as Lex Luthor's sidekick, has such wicked snap that she should have played Louis Lane, with dishwater Bosworth as her intern, if in the movie at all. Superman Returns, then, to fight for "truth, justice... all that stuff." Left out, of course, is the "American way," namely producing hack-spectacles that not even the kryptonite of a critic's pen can wane.
The original Superman came out in the late 1970s to offer the American public perfection, the antithesis to the flawed antiheroes of Altman, Scorsese and Rafaelson, and also an antidote to the still-fresh fallout of the Vietnam War. Superman Returns now with the Middle East conflict still very much on and the chinks in the imperial armor of the Bush regime becoming increasingly apparent; a staunch anti-blockbuster, The Road to Guantanamo far prefers to shake down myths rather than restore them, and to anger viewers rather than wow them. The story, based on fact, is of the "Tipton Three," the youthful British-Muslim blokes who took off to Pakistan in late 2001 for one of the guys' arranged wedding and ended up crossing the border into Afghanistan on a tour of spots-not-to-be-at-after-9/11, from Kandahar and Kabul to Kunduz and other Taliban sites as bombing by the Northern Allied forces kicked off. The first half of the movie is a jittery Hostel, a tourist's horror story, gross food and disease, then explosions at night in the distance and bodies tossed into desert ditches, the queasiness amplified by the frantic DV camerawork. Also like Hostel, torture is to follow -- the guys, trying "to help out," hop a van packed with jihadists and are arrested by U.S. forces, crammed into freight containers with other suspects before being flown over to "Camp X-Ray" in the Marine-operated detention facility in Guantanamo, Cuba. Sent safely far from American soil (and from pesky Geneva Convention rules), their hell begins.
Michael Winterbottom is a filmmaker of impulses. The past year has seen two other works from him, the art-house porno 9 Songs and the skittering mock-adaptation Tristan Shandy, and, despite the strenuously heterogeneous quality of the director's oeuvre, motifs are emerging -- slapdash cutting and framing, as if bothering to compose a shot might squeeze the manic life out of the material, plus an interest in volatile spots (Welcome to Sarajevo and In This World are among this restless traveler's itineraries) and a promiscuous mingling of the staged and the documented. Not content to merely deal with what looks like a mountain of ad-libbed footage (his usual production assistant, Mat Whitecross, gets credit as co-director), Winterbottom mixes straight-to-camera interviews with the real-life people (Asif Iqbal, Ruhel Ahmed and Shafiq Rasul) with the (nonprofessional) actors playing them throughout their Gitmo ordeal. Footage from BBC and Al-Jazeera punctuates the narrative, Bush points out these are "bad people," Rumsfeld deems interrogative brutalization "for the most part" consistent with the Geneva Convention; meanwhile, Winterbottom's Wrong Men endure kennel cells, humiliation, Koran-stomping, brutally imbecilic inquiries ("You're Al-Qaeda!" "No." Punch to the head. "You're Al-Qaeda!" "No." Punch to the head). The director's slovenliness is a torture device of its own, but the grueling point is well taken -- their ordeal is the audience's, a raw work to be endured (and remembered) as a taste of horrors done in their name.
A relatively more lighthearted grinder in The Devil Wears Prada for Anne Hathaway, who gets the job "a million girls would kill for" -- that is, whipping-girl for the fashion world's supreme Ice Queen (Meryl Streep), with all the phone-answering, coffee-bringing, Harry Potter-manuscript-snatching the position demands. The heroine is a journalism-grad parachuted into the rarefied air of haute couture, frumpy by glam-mag standards until fabulous clothing and celeb-schmoozing make her forget her integrity, to say nothing of her plebeian friends and boyfriend (Adrian Grenier, doing the sensitive five o'clock shadow thing). The material is Lauren Weisberger's best-selling tell-all about her tenure with Vogue cobra Anne Wintour, but it's The Princess Diaries 3, really; still, it is nimbly assembled (by director David Frankel) and tartly performed, with vague memories of '30s working-gal comedies. Hathaway shows ingénue-blitheness to decorate her lanky torso, Emily Blunt and Stanley Tucci flutter and sting; Streep uses her character's super-villainess status to calmly reap laugh after laugh from imperious lip-pursing and back-stiffening, voice never raised yet always loaded with daggers, a tranquilized Bengal tigress. Not enough vinegar here, but it's fetching shallowness in a season when only unsightly shallowness is usually available.
Reviewed July 6, 2006.