Wednesday, July 26, 2006


Superman Returns, dir. Bryan Singer

Superman returns and brings the Blockbuster with him! Superman Returns is Bryan Singer’s attempt to make the super-sequel he always felt the first two Superman films deserved, ignoring the more lightweight, but in my opinion enjoyable, Superman 3 and 4.

From a purely visual standpoint the film is beautifully photographed, Newton Thomas Sigel, making full use of the new Genesis HD cameras. Metropolis is depicted as a place constantly bathed in the light of magic hour, invoking the wistful, romantic tone of Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie.

Drawing on the feel and iconography of an earlier age the film acquires a mythic, larger-than-life-quality. The opening credits are spine-tinglingly good: A veil of stars, dark, silent. The words ‘Superman Returns’ appear, the same font used in the earlier films. Then the words fly towards us leaving a streak of blue light in their wake. The camera begins to move, past planets and moons, around meteors and through asteroids, John Williams epic music swells to its full fanfare and my smile widens. THIS IS A MOVIE!!!

This sequence establishes a level the film cannot maintain, a short while later we have to come down from the stars and Superman must return to Earth. He finds Lois Lane engaged to Richard White (nephew of 'Daily Planet' editor Perry) and mother to a five-year-old kid. Here is where the film looses a much of its zip. Scenes involving the Lois-Richard-Clarke love triangle are well executed, and even the kid stays the right side of annoying, but from a narrative standpoint these additions handcuff the story, not allowing Superman to be as super I would like. Also, Lex Luthor, fresh out of prison, has hatched a new plan. I would have preferred to see Superman facing off against another character/creature/machine of super-human capability.

What of Brandon Routh as the title character? To an extent he is fighting a losing battle even attempting this role – Reeves embodied Superman to such an extent that for many people, myself included, he is Superman. Routh is not Reeves, obviously, but he does a fine job of channelling his likeness, his physicality and the timbre of his voice. His Clarke is not as clumsy as Reeves, but he is equally awkward and dorky, Superman perfectly disguised behind those thick dark rimmed glasses. There is a nice moment between Lois and Richard when, looking at Clarke they think on the fact that he looks a bit like Superman. Clarke, listening to their conversation using his super-hearing spots them across the room and waves nervously. Lois and Richard share a laugh at their ridiculous thought.

A lot of people seem to have a problem with Superman’s moral certainty and lack of inner conflict. Personally, I enjoy the way Superman embraces its "comic" nature. His character doesn’t spend nights alone in a cave, brooding about the death of his parents, or lamenting his struggle to maintain a duel identity. Dressing up like a giant bat and taking it seriously is just as ridiculous as anything in this film.

Released 20 years ago Superman Returns would have been hailed as a classic. As it stands today it is a nostalgic nod toward an earlier time, never quite capturing the magic of the ‘Golden Age’ of Blockbuster, but coming quite close on several occasions.

Sunday, July 16, 2006


Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, dir. Gore Verbinski
At the start of Harry Knowles book Ain't It Cool: Hollywood's Redheaded Stepchild Speaks Out Harry asks a film critic which he prefers writing, positive or negative reviews. The critic confides that he prefers writing negative reviews because they allow him to vent his frustrations and be more creative, he also says they can work as a form of catharsis. Harry, on the other hand, says he prefers writing positive reviews because they give him the chance to discuss and understand all the ways a given film inspires him and recommend it to others who he hopes will enjoy the same thrilling experience. But what about films that one feels entirely indifferent towards? Like Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.

Faced with a film that inspires no real feeling I would normally write a negative review, but I can’t bring myself to think too badly of this film. As far as cynical cash-ins go Pirates 2 is a lightweight, recent Bret Ratner helmed travesty X-Men 3: The Last Stand is the heavyweight champion. Gore Verbinski, unlike Bret Ratner, can direct action, at least, what his film (like Ratner’s) lacks, is a script.

The film that Pirates 2 reminds me of the most is The Matrix Reloaded. Arriving with a blizzard of hype, promising to be bigger and better than the original, but only fulfilling the promise of the former. The film is defined by a procession of long CGI set pieces, which are big and loud and look pretty enough but that once they have ended leave you wondering, "Why? Where have we actually gone in terms of narrative?" Some interesting ideas are included, but in such a ramshackle fashion that they never convince in terms of story or stucture.

A couple of years ago I read an article in Empire magazine about how the success of the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings films would ruin cinema. While they were good films themselves the message sent to the people who make and produce films was "make a two and half hour movie and they will still come." The former unwritten rule that a feature film needs a running time of less than two hours was abandoned. The Empire soothsayer has so far been proved right, following their prediction we have seen a trend towards bloated, indulgent and largely boring films that have a tendency to outstay their welcome - The Matrix sequels, Bad Boys II, The Island, Kill Bill... Not that I am saying all movies need be under two hours, but these films should! It is not that they are telling stories on a larger scale, in the vein of older 'epics' The Godfather and Lawrence of Arabia. They are not giving us more, simply excess.

A really strong producer, a Roger Corman or a Bob Evans, needs to come and tell these filmmakers, "NO! Enough is enough!"

Friday, July 14, 2006


Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, by J.K. Rowling

The sixth book in the highly successful boy wizard series sees Harry, Ron and Hermione starting another year at Hogwarts in mortal danger. Having regained physical form the Dark Lord Voldermort is reeking havoc in the wizarding world and his wrong-doings are not going unnoticed in the world of muggles (non-wizarding folk, for the uninitiated) where the Prime Minister is being held responsible for the work of forces well beyond his imagination. Though he never appears in the flesh during the novel's 768 pages the Half-Blood Prince tells us more about Voldermort than ever, delving into his past and discussing how he came to be the way he is.

From a narrative standpoint the book has many flaws. First among them, it is much too long – is it really necessary to stage three Quidditch matches?! Many story elements are predictable and the plot is formulaic, never breaking the - character bit, plot bit, character bit, plot bit… pattern, so well worn by other books in the series. There are also several one-note characters, with a few notable exceptions - Snape, Lupin, Dumbledore and Voldermort are all enjoyable. And for anyone even vaguely familiar with the series I am spoiling nothing when I reveal, for the sixth time in six books the Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher turns out to be the bad guy!


It just goes to show you can do whatever you want as long as you capture the reader’s imagination, the only part of the story that really matters. Against my better judgement I found the book compelling and entertaining, reading it in less than two days. I’m sure the half-blood prince would have a few ideas on how to bottle the certain something it is that makes this series so likeable – if only his old textbook had been gifted to me in Potions class all those years ago.

Much is made of the so-called 'darkness' in the Harry Potter series, though there is scant sign of any of that here. Ever since Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone Rowling's writing has been favourably compared to Roald Dahl’s: both have written stories enjoyed by children and adults alike, with massive popular appeal, but that is where the similarities end. Roald Dahl’s stories are imbued with a nursery-rhymes-aren’t-really-suitable-for-children sense of meanness, whereas acts of violence in Harry Potter are all reconciled with a hearty dose of old-fashioned Catholic morality.

A more appropriate comparison might be Eynid Blyton and her Famous Five/Secret Seven stories. Both those and Harry Potter are about groups of children who solve mysteries, stay one step ahead of the adults, and put themselves in dangerous situations without ever really being threatened...

So, well done! Bravo! And ginger pop all round! I eagerly await the final instalment but please, try and make it just a bit shorter.

Saturday, July 08, 2006


Words and Music: a history of pop in the shape of a city, by Paul Morley

Paul Morley is a highly influential rock journalist who worked for the New Musical Express in the late 70s and early 80s. He quit writing full-time about pop music at the age of twenty-five because he felt he had gotten too old.

In Words and Music Morley (now middle aged) takes the reader on a journey towards a virtual city built of sound and ideas. The book is ostensibly inspired by his two favourite pieces of music at the time of writing. I am sitting in a room by Alvin Lucifer, an avant-garde piece involving the overlaying of voices, and number one hit single I can’t get you out of my head by Kylie Minogue. A succession of other celebrities and artists also appear led by Kraftwork, Brian Eno, Lou Reed, Radiohead, John Cage, Eric Satie, Eminem, and Jarvis Cocker.

On route to the city the ubiquitous author takes many unexpected detours, travelling deeper into the back roads of his own obsessions, some of them real, others imagined. While musing on the nature of what it means to write about music Morley debates his position in the pantheon of great rock writers, before concluding that he is himself the greatest. Another winding route involves an alternate reality where The Shadows didn’t work with Cliff Richard, instead they collaborated with DJ Shadow, shaping dense, mysterious tapestries of instrumental electro/acoustic trip-hop evoking the kind of enigma that justifies their name.

Lists are a way of ordering the infinitely multiplicitous and endlessly evolving universe we are all a part of. This book has lots of lists, but contains so much more, in no small part due to the science fiction sense of wonder and awe feeding into and branching out from Morley’s prose style. This is a book that expresses an enthusiasm for the discoveries that are yet to be made, and a celebration of the inspirations that preceded them: "even though it has all happened before, everything has been done, every variation of everything has been tried, there continues to be something new under the sun".

Words and Music is verbose and self-indulgent – both plus points here - thoughtful and compelling too, and also beautifully written. Highly recommended to all lovers of words and/or music.