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by Bill Gibron

2 Jul 2007

Like the gourmet food it so exquisitely renders, one fears that the sensational Ratatouille will end up being a decidedly acquired commercial taste. Far too languid for sugar fried kid brains, but marketed in such a manner as to keep the more mature demographic it’s actually perfect for from lining up, it represents a brilliant step forward in Pixar’s continued domination of the 3D animation realm. It also proves that Brad Bird is the reigning king of outsider cartooning. From his pen and ink triumph The Iron Giant to the pumped up perfection of The Incredibles, he’s managed to become a genre genius by refusing to believe the artform’s inherent limits. Constantly pushing beyond its narrative and visual capacities, Ratatouille ends up one frighteningly effortless entertainment.

This is indeed the kind of film one gets lost in, a symbiotic showcase of story, design and execution. The tale begins with our hero, a rat named Remy, recounting the first time he realized his special gift – the ability to create fantastic cuisine via a highly acute sense of smell. To him, food is a sensory experience, not just an available pile of garbage out near the sewers. Of course, this does not go over well with his extended vermin family. His brother thinks Remy is acting spoiled, while his Dad doesn’t understand how any rodent can abandon his family. When a freak accident separates the clan, Remy ends up in Paris, and soon finds the famous five star restaurant Gusteau’s. Unfortunately, the eatery has fallen on hard times, losing much of its status and reputation, thanks in large part to new chef Skinner and cruel critic Anton Ego.

As luck would have it, Remy befriends garbage boy Linguini. He’s a meek manchild, working in the kitchen of the famed eatery out of desperation – and a debt to his dead mother. One night, he messes up the soup, and Remy runs in to try and save it. Turns out the potage is a hit, and Skinner is desperate to discover the secret. Before long, Remy and Linguini have teamed up, turning Gusteau’s fortunes around with the help of the refectory’s staff, including the commanding Colette. But forces are conspiring to foil this partnership. The rat’s family has returned, and they love the fact that their sibling in squalor lives in a neverending food bank. Our human hero is also hounded by his newfound reputation. It has even peaked the interest of Ego, who thought he had buried the business ages ago.

While this all sounds incredibly complex, the truth is that Ratatouille is breezy and basic. It exudes a kind of smoothness that causes all confusion to pass away simply and sincerely. It shows more imagination in its first five minutes than most crass commercial CGI excuses for family films. It resonates with a kind of emotion that causes you to root for the heroes, hiss the numerous villains, and wonder on whose side the various ancillary character’s loyalties rest. Bird takes his time telling his tale, letting sequences of silly slapstick monopolize as much time as quieter, more intimate moments. It has to be repeated here that the pacing is all wrong for the weaned on home video set. Ratatouille wants to create a legend, and such mythologizing takes time.

If you can get into the movie’s relaxed groove, you’ll be richly rewarded in ways that consistently surprise you. Remy’s struggles to find solace after seemingly losing his family are heartfelt and sad. Similarly, Linguini is not just the comic relief. He’s a sweet soul with a decent spirit – he just can’t help the fact that he’s unexceptional. Even the villains shock us with their subtle character layers. Peter O’Toole is absolutely splendid as Ego, giving each one of his lines the kind of acerbic ambience that makes them consistently sinister. But when he gets his comeuppance of sorts, the way the movie illustrates his feelings is enough to bring a tear of joy to your eye. While the theme of being true to yourself sort of gets lost in the shifting storyline – though the “anyone can cook” maxim is repeated incessantly – Bird makes sure that we understand how it applies to everyone. In fact, one of Linguini’s best lines is a simply affirmation: “”Tonight, I’m just your waiter.”

As with most Pixar product, the voice acting is uniformly outstanding. Patton Oswalt is an odd choice to voice Remy, especially given his less than family friendly stand up comedy career (parents – don’t go running out to buy his CD and DVD catalog for the wee ones just yet). But here, the comedian does what he’s mastered on stage. He draws us in, using an amiable ‘aw shucks’ quality to counter his frequently blue bombshells. On the other end of the spectrum, Ian Holm is all Napoleonic complex as the tiny, terrified head chef of Gusteau’s. Making a fortune whoring out the restaurant’s reputation, Skinner is indeed panicked that Linguini’s fame will foul his plans, and Holm’s captures that paranoia perfectly. As Colette, a barely recognizable Janeane Garofalo is all Parisian girl power. Through her delicate accent, she exudes both determination and romance. Other standouts include Brad Garrett as the voice of friendly ghost Gusteau and Lou Romano as Linguini.

But the true stars here are the many artists and designers who toiled endlessly to realize the magnificent gleam of Paris. There are several shots that appear lifted directly from a photorealistic rendering of the skyline, and when Remy races through many of the city’s streets and byways, the attention to detail is maddening. It’s the same inside Gusteau’s kitchen. As with most interior spaces, Pixar amplifies the nooks and crannies, coming up with more and more ingenious ways of working our characters through the maze-like mayhem. This is definitely the kind of movie you have to see twice – once just to get the basics down, and the second time to drink in all the particulars. Unlike The Incredibles, which was simply the best comic book super hero movie ever made, Ratatouille wants to compete, optically, with the other wonders created by its corporate namesake. It does so magnificently.

Oddly enough, there are those wary of the film because it contains, at least for them, a decided ‘ick’ factor. Granted, for people who hate spiders, a film like Eight Legged Freaks of Arachnophobia might be a bit much to handle. Similar, the Empire State showdown between Peter Jackson’s Kong and that armada of bi-planes was so expertly visualized that anyone with a hatred of heights got instant vertigo. But to be put off by cartoon mice in a make believe restaurant seems a tad…specious. After all, this is animation, not real life, and while Remy and his clan are given the full blown bubonic plague treatment (some of these creatures are, well, ratty), they also speak and exhibit sophisticated motor skills. When was the last time you saw a lice ridden rodent whip up a delicious looking omelet. Besides, if you could make Mouse Hunt a sizable hit with a lifelike CG pest, you can handle these animated animals.

And yet, one can’t help but feel that this fantastic film will eventually underperform. Parents of antsy offspring will tell their SUV subordinates of their progeny’s predicable inability to sit still, and glumly conclude “It’s no Finding Nemo”. Others will be desperate to look for the instant hook of likeability and argue that Bird bypasses such shallowness for something more meaty. Whatever the case may be, don’t let the ennui-laced word of mouth dissuade you from seeing one of the best movies of the Summer. Proving once again that only Pixar can consistently make animated movie magic, Ratatouille is destined to go down as one of their best. And when you consider the canon it must compare to, that’s some statement.

 

by Karen Heller [The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)]

2 Jul 2007

Could there be a more brilliant title than The Dangerous Book for Boys? You could take two empty covers, stick a book of matches inside—dipped in wax for waterproofing as suggested—and come up a winner.

This handsome volume, authored by brothers Conn and Hal Iggulden, proffers advice on such essentials as spiders, poker, invisible ink, skinning a rabbit and making a go-cart, things every boy’s father knew as a boy.

OK, let’s not kid ourselves here. Every boy’s grandfather.

A phenomenon in the authors’ native England where it was published a year ago, Dangerous was named British Book of the Year, with more than half a million copies in print. Since its May debut on these shores, the retro manual, which has a $25 list price, has sold 211,000 copies. It crests Publishers Weekly‘s best-seller list, outselling Reagan, Gore, Diana, Hillary, Einstein and, well, God.

by PopMatters Staff

2 Jul 2007

Through The Sparks —"Mexico (Every Last Buffalo)" From Lazarus Beach on Skybucket Records Upon the realization that they were sitting on a library of songs and ideas, and with multiple songwriters in the band, Through the Sparks pooled their pile of beat-up pianos and organs, 8-tracks and a Protools rig, and formed Alamalibu Studios, the band’s heavily fortified, though often transient, music-making space in Birmingham, Alabama. The band released an EP titled Coin Toss and a limited edition collection of early recordings, AudioIotas, during the first year and a half of its existence, both released on Skybucket Records. They’ve recently completed their first full-length release for Skybucket, while playing as many shows as the recording schedule allowed.

The Ladybug Transistor —"Three Days From Now" From Can’t Wait Another Day on Merge Records The album features spirited contributions from members of Aislers Set, Architecture in Helsinki, The Clientele, Jens Lekman, Kevin Barker (Currituck Co., Vetiver), Heather McIntosh (Circulatory System, Instruments) Roy Nathanson (Lounge Lizards/Jazz Passengers) and others. The first fruits of these sessions were heard on 2006’s Here Comes The Rain EP.

Nadir—"Slave (Distorted Soul Album Version)" From Slave: The Remixtape on Bikiniwax Church-trained, Southern bred, reborn urban dread, Nadir (meaning “rare and unique”) is a clear and resonant voice of cultural change. Singer/songwriter, producer and activist Jonah Nadir Omowale brings us an undeniable musical message, steeped in both tradition and innovation. His music, called Distorted Soul, is a revolutionary soul music hybrid that incorporates elements of funk, electronica, r&b, soul, house, rock, jazz, folk and hip-hop “in such a delectable manner that his musical renditions are certain to satisfy and musical palate.”

The Foundry Field Recordings —"Transistor Kids" From Fallout Stations EP on Emergency Umbrella Records Fallout Stations is the limited edition, companion EP to The Foundry Field Recordings debut full-length Prompts/Miscues. It contains new songs, rarities, and highlights directly relating back to the concept album.

Rasputina—"Cage In A Cave" From Oh Perilous World! on Filthy Bonnet Recording Co.
Oh Perilous World! the sixth full length album from chamber-rock trio Rasputina was performed by the band’s creator Melora Creager and drummer Jonathon TeBeest with second chair Sarah Bowman contributing additional vocals. Creager wrote the songs featured on Oh Perilous World! over the last two years after deciding current world events were more bizarre than anything she could scrounge up from the distant past. She obsessively read daily news on the Internet, copying words, phrases and whole stories that especially intrigued her. She compiled a vast notebook of this material from which the Oh Perilous World! lyrics are culled.

Shout Out Louds —"Tonight I Have to Leave It" From Tonight I Have to Leave It on Merge Records
“Tonight I Have to Leave It” is the first single from Stockholm’s Shout Out Louds upcoming Merge full-length, Our Ill Wills [Sept. 11, 2007]. With a video for the title track, two remixes and two non-LP “b-sides” this is a great reintroduction to a Swedish band whose extraordinary 2005 debut, Howl Howl Gaff Gaff (Capitol) garnered worldwide critical acclaim and placed them squarely in the middle of the current Swedish pop explosion.

by Rob Horning

2 Jul 2007

Who doesn’t love a good manifesto? The New York Times thoughtfully provides pdfs of the Splasher Manifesto, distributed mysteriously a week or so ago by a group that apparently hates street art—they went around splashing paint on works by people like Banksy, who had suddenly became trendy with lifestyle magazines. This epistle has everything that makes manifestos great—Situationist-style mischievousness; heightened, pretentiously militaristic diction; paranoid megalomania tending toward nihilism; petty grievances about the art world elevated to cosmic significance; enough ambiguity and implicit irony to make it impossible to tell how seriously the authors take themselves. It’s as if they only just noticed that artists make commercial objects that are traded in markets that manufacture value out of thin air—value that is ultimately backed by workers’ sweat equity at some point in the economic chain. (This is most memorably stated on the page with the slogan “Capital sucks from the teats of idols”—“Your compromises with capital are not some side deal you make to support your art; it is essential to it, capital is woven into your production.”) Of course this makes artists’ poses ludicrous. But it almost gives artists too much credit and dignity to be appalled at how they fail to transcend capitalism; they never had a chance, especially the ones who practice art as if it were a shortcut to an understanding of sociology or political science. The movement that the splashers are trying to halt is the one that will expose once and for all that artists and advertisers (“creatives”) are essentially synonymous at this point. A new word needs to be coined for the creative practice the splashers want to champion, though it may just be the self-actualization promised by consumerism realized by different means.

There are some provocative points in the manifesto—namely that the avant-garde and the Left should not in any way be considered synonymous; avant-garde movements are not any more progressive than fashion cycles are. Also, that commercial street art turns public space into desiccated gallery space. It makes people walking the street feel vaguely like trespassers. It’s one of the reasons I personally hate the monstrous sculptures corporations plop in semi-public spaces near office buildings—the demoralization that occurs in the typical hierarchical and bureaucratized office is extended into the world at large.

But I would have enjoyed the manifesto for its audacious rhetoric alone. A few highlights:

“We began these series of actions as a critique of rationality…. To further exemplify the disrespect we felt for the work and its creator, we arrogantly mixed the wheat paste with shards of glass.”
The use of the adverb “arrogantly” in that statement perfectly exemplifies manifesto style, which is mainly about ludicrous adverb placement and unnecessary jargon.

“Any dialogue with power is violence, whether passively suffered or actively provoked.”
A good example of the tendency of manifestos to generate a multiplicity of near-meaningless aphorisms. The heightened rhetoric of manifestos proceeds toward an ideal in which every single utterance is an aphorism, a pithy expression of some contingent insight that is reframed as a universal axiom.

“We are comprised of both men and women”
Obviously there are no copy editors among them.

“If we did have to speculate on what would encompass a successful outcome, we would have to rejoice over those who are now autonomously destroying pieces on their own volition in cities across the globe.”
The global reach they imagine has to be tongue-in-cheek. But this is typical of manifestos, where a radical group’s efforts set such powerful examples that like-minded followers emerge spontaneously and forward the cause independent of their ever having being a coherent explanation of what the cause is. Manifestos imagine the power of organizations without the overhead costs they necessitate; the magic discourse of the manifesto calls into being groups that can achieve public goods without the friction of interpersonal squabbles.

“We do not want a world where the guarantee of not dying of hunger is paid for by the certainty of dying of boredom.”
Sublime hyperbole, almost Baudrillardian in its scope. The idea that physical starvation is preferable to consumerist anomie is like the Spartanism I sometimes romanticize taken to the nth extreme: Material deprivation is preferable to meaningless choice among consumer goods. And remember, they are justifying nothing more extreme than vandalizing street art—they are willing to starve rather than be affronted by some well-meaning, gentrifying mural.

“Art collectors and admirers are the most insufferable lot of all. Endowed with nothing but time and money, they consistently hemorrhage both meaningless adulation and cash on their preferred jesters.”
“Nothing but time and money”—these are not bad things to have a surplus of. I guess the implication is that they lack talent, but the impression I get from the rest of the manifesto is that talent itself is a bourgeois mystification. I also get the sense that the manifesto verges on becoming the kind of hipster ego art that it professes to denounce; that is part of its frisson, perhaps.

“Art: the excrement of action”
The syntax here mimics that of the granddaddy of manifesto writers, Marinetti, the futurist who wrote “War: The World’s only hygiene,” a document which contains the immortal declaration “The red holidays of genius have begun.” “Art: the excrement of action” has some similarly bombastic declarations, about the centrality of action and destruction as creativity and so forth; apparently this group doesn’t subscribe to the notion that capitalism is the original harbinger of creative destruction—maybe they should read Schumpeter; they might appreciate his tone if nothing else.

“Destroy the museums, in the streets and everywhere.”
It’s impossible to tell if this is meant literally, but I take this to mean that the complacent, reverant attitude, flush with social capital, that we take to museums makes it impossible for us to appreciate art as it should be appreciated; it robs it of its appropriate context—apparently that of class struggle: “destroying the bourgeoisie”. This seems a tall order for most art, but if it can make us feel ashamed of the museum-going mentality, the passive faux-transcendent pose of chin-scratching judgment and connoiseurship, it’s moving in the right direction.

by Bill Gibron

1 Jul 2007

The headlines were so bizarre as to be hilarious. The German government, or more specifically, the department in charge of the nation’s motion picture production approvals and locations, was refusing to let Tom Cruise make his new movie, Valkyrie, in their country. It had nothing to do with the storyline—a failed WWII plot among Nazi officers to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Though still a slightly tenuous subject, the German people have become less sensitive on the subject. No, the stated rationale was that Cruise, as a member of the controversial Church of Scientology, was a prominent member of a ‘dangerous cult’. The country would have no part in his presence. The firestorm surrounding the decision caused the standard back peddling, and within days, Valkyrie was welcomed with open arms. Oddly enough, if the nation wanted a more legitimate reason for banning the movie, they need look no further than the director in charge.

That’s because Bryan Singer is a hack. In a flummoxing fanboy realm where every movie he’s helmed has been deemed an instant classic, he’s barely better than a dozen far more despised directors. What, for example, makes Singer better than Mark Steven Johnson? Both have overseen half-baked comic book movies, and yet everything Mr. Ghost Rider and Daredevil does is condemned. The same lame characterization and average action sequences also appear regularly in Singer’s sloppy oeuvre. For that matter, why does our X-Man get labeled a true devotee of the funny book artform when Sam Raimi holds a similar Spidey stature? Could it be that Singer fails to own an Evil Dead like cult constantly circling its unwelcome wagons around its maker’s many moves? Indeed, you’d think Raimi would rate higher than this wannabe auteur, and yet so many give big Bry a pass that you’d swear they were on his personal payroll.

Looking back over the six full length features he’s helmed—and discounting the independent effort Public Access for now—it is clear that Singer lucked into a situation that, once it occurred, he found almost impossible to repeat. Said circumstance was the happenstance of buddying up with screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie. A high school friend, the two budding filmmakers collaborated on a pair of projects, one of which would go on to skyrocket the duo to instant Tinsel Town fame. Its name was The Usual Suspects, and thanks to a critical community desperate for something different in the standard crime/caper genre, the talky, showboating cinematic stunt became a sleeper hit. It also gained the pair unexpected Hollywood clout, thanks to many appearances on year-end lists and a pair of Oscars (neither for Singer).

Yet the next step for both seemed highly unusual. McQuarrie, who actually owned one of those two Academy Awards, worked on a failed television pilot (something called The Underworld) while Singer took over the adaptation of one of Stephen King’s beloved Different Seasons stories, Apt Pupil. In fact, he had long wanted to tackle the project, and sent the famed horror author a copy of Suspects as kind of an audition reel. Bringing in another childhood buddy—Brandon Boyce—to write the script, Singer made sure to walk as carefully to the edge of the story’s controversial narrative (a young boy discovers a nasty Nazi war criminal in his neighborhood, and picks up his violent mantel) without ruining his mainstream mandate. Unfortunately, a specific artistic choice got the entire production in hot water (Singer filmed a non-sexual shower sequence featuring several unclothed male minors), and in the end, the movie was only mildly successful.

All the while, another friend named Tom DeSanto was planting the seeds for the filmmaker’s first mega-success. A lifelong comic book geek, the production executive desperately wanted Singer to take on the big screen adaptation of the fabled Marvel characters, the X-Men. With its obvious undercurrents of racism and intolerance, it was a project that intrigued the director. Numerous scripts were floating around, many of which were quite faithful to the characters origins and attitudes. Singer, however, wanted to somehow bridge the gap between the fictional and real worlds, and he imposed changes on the property to ‘modernize’ its approach. Devotees of the characters were instantly up in arms (Issue #1—the new black ‘Batman’ like suits) and many feared Singer couldn’t appreciate the importance of this long delayed adaptation.

It was clear that, in the end, he really didn’t. X-Men stands as the sloppiest of big screen comic book movies, a leap in artistic logic that believes in manipulating material to fit both the demographic and business model the film is forged within. Thanks to advances in special effects, the various mutant powers owned by the characters are convincingly realized, but Singer fails to find actual personalities within each supposed hero and/or villain. In fact, he seems to think that backstory (Magneto as Holocaust survivor) and the stench of abject racism (the narrative revolves around a politician who wants to expose the mutant population as a possible threat to society) will fill in the obvious blanks. Suffering from average action scenes, an excess of explanatory exposition, and way too many players to properly manage, the movie remains an ineffectual mess. While there are those who find it almost flawless (especially compared to the plethora of similarly styled movies that it spawned), it’s really nothing more than a magnified misfire.

Still, money talks in the BS world of moviemaking, and with nearly $300 million at the box office, X-Men was viewed as an unqualified success. Singer was heralded as the new voice of comic book cinema (soon to be overtaken by others more deserving, including Sam Raimi, Christopher Nolan and Guillermo Del Toro) and he tried to parlay that professional delineation into his next few creative choices. But Hollywood loves to lock artists into previous payoffs, making sure that their triumphs are owned outright and reliably repeatable. Contractually obligated to make X-Men 2, Singer had to drop out of a couple of high profile projects in order to accommodate the studio’s sequel needs. Wanting to take a more ‘human approach’—i.e., focusing on the reactions of society against the unusual and the different—the director drew up a new motion picture battle plan. Of course, he ran directly into the suits desire for more of the same, and it wasn’t long before X2 (as the newest installment was called) arrived, easily following the dollar-based directive.

While a step up artistically, especially in the epic scope and size of the storyline (an almost unlimited budget will do that for you), X2 shows that Singer still has no idea how to combine heroics with emotion. The main characters remain icons, unable to break out of the special skills that more or less define who they are, and without Ian McKellan as prime villain Magneto and Patrick Stewart as good guy Dr. Charles Xavier, the central conflict of the film would have no performance power or potency. Actresses Halle Berry and Famke Janssen lobbied hard for more significant screen time, and the balance between male and female mutants frequently feels shifted based on star quality, not storyline needs. With the action only slightly improved from the first film, and an inconclusive finale that simply sets up the next installment in the series, X2 was a preachy, arrogant attention whore. Naturally, the viewing public ate it up, twisting the turnstiles to the tune of nearly $400 million.

It’s at this point where Singer starts throwing his movie franchise muscle around. In 2004, his TV medical drama House, M.D. , found a home at Fox. Later that year, negotiations began for X-Men 3. But Warner Brothers, desperate to get back into the superhero game, were looking for someone to helm their Superman revamp. A long dormant disaster, everyone from Kevin Smith to Tim Burton had taken a swipe at reviving the Man of Steel, and with moneymen behind the mutants balking at Singer’s latest demands, Kal-El’s keepers saw a chance to get one of the two main names in the genre (Raimi, the auteur behind the ridiculously popular Spider-man series being the other). Singer jumped at the chance to reimagine Kyrpton’s last son, and Fox responded by handing over the reigns of X-Men: The Last Stand, to the Rush Hour reject, Brett Ratner.

Though slightly hurt, Singer couldn’t have cared less. He had Clark Kent’s alter ego to deal with, and the problems were paramount. The project had little believability or bearing and the graphic novel basis for much of the jumpstart was forged out of publicity ploys (the Death of Superman) and Dark Knight style stunts. Looking over the character’s cinematic arc, Singer proposed something radical. He would forget everything and anything that came after Richard Donner and Richard Lester’s ‘70s interpretation of the material, and make a movie that picked up where Superman 2 left off. While fans were flummoxed, Warners was sold. The new direction was approved and casting commenced. Chalk one up for Singer’s sense of what would sell. Unfortunately, it would be the last cognizant decision he would make as director.

His first significant stumble came with his choice of actors. No, Brandon Routh would turn out to be a wonderful choice (he’s a great Man of Steel), and old pal Kevin Spacey (who won one of his two Oscars under Singer’s guidance in The Usual Suspects) was an obvious - and rather easy - Lex Luthor. But Kate Bosworth is a hideous Lois Lane, incapable of bringing anything remotely realistic to her portrayal of a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. She’s a lousy damsel in distress and an even worse example of self-sufficiency. In this post-modern, post-feminist world, she crumbles the minute danger rears its routine head. She is supposed to illustrate the broken dream of Superman’s disappearance, but she’s really nothing more than an un-pretty pie face playing with the big boys.

Then there is the overall art design. Somewhere along the line, Singer fell in love with the notion of tweaking the image as far over into the blue spectrum of color as possible. Noticeable even to the untrained eye, the azure tint to everything from cars to clothes is oddly unsettling. Perhaps he thought it would give the entire production a more comic panel feel. Instead, it frequently feels like someone has purposefully fiddled with your retina’s rods and cones. As for the action, the opening space shuttle crash is wonderfully executed, and when the Daily Planet’s trademark globe is dislodged from the top of the skyscraper, Superman’s rescue of said object is powerful in its impact. But the rest of the movie is undermined by a real lack of focus—specifically, in what Lex Luthor plans on doing with his newfound appreciation for crystals and kryptonite.

From a sloppy haired super offspring (who looks about as threatening as a Little Rascal’s waif) to a finale that’s all spectacle and no substance, Superman Returns was not the pinnacle of Singer’s production powers. Indeed, it once again highlighted all of his inherent flaws. Unlike Raimi, who perfectly balanced emotion with excess in Spider-man 2, or Nolan, who found a flawless combination of psychological and physical conflict in Batman Begins, Singer’s characters are all flash. They appear to be reaching for depth, but unless they are capable of seeing beneath the surface (like Routh did for his turn as Superman), they end up coming across as flat and totally dimensionless. Even the heroes he chose to highlight in the X-Men series—Wolverine, Cyclops, Storm—are more outer shells than insular individuals, defined almost exclusively by their special skills. The intriguing thing about Peter Parker and Bruce Wayne is that, at least in their current cinematic incarnation, they are people first, pillars of super heroism second.

This is why Singer sucks. He’s all about the surface, his constant concerns about subtext all smoke and unskilled mirrors. Outside the genre, he’s had limited direct success (Suspects was McQuarrie and Spacey’s baby, the vast majority of House is helmed by others) and so few people have seen his Sundance winner Public Access that it really doesn’t count. Any other filmmaker would be called a wounded one trick pony, especially since the X-Men have now been largely overshadowed by other, better comic book movies. This doesn’t mean that we should write off Bryan Singer for the near future. It merely indicates that, as some kind of savior, as a go to guy for every epic idea that comes down the pipeline, he should have to wait in line like dozens of derivative others. He’s not the greatest director of kinetic eye candy, and his films can’t compare to the efforts of those who’ve followed.

Valkyrie could change all that, and if it does, he will once again have a lot of significant help. McQuarrie is back penning the script, and Cruise still holds some clout, even if his pre-War of the Worlds/Mission Impossible III antics cost him some demographic percentage points. But having the German government diss you before a single frame a film is shot (granted, it now seems like a massive miscommunication) is not the most promising of possible omens. And yet, when Bryan Singer is involved in a project, it seems that something has to be slightly askew. It helps explain his ineffectualness come opening day, providing a built in excuse where something more personal is definitely the issue. How this translates into his status as an A-list director is still astounding. He’s no different than a dozen mediocre moviemakers (Tim Story, are you listening?) who get lucky tapping into an uninformed audience zeitgeist. He not special—he’s substandard. This makes his continued ascension into the ranks of motion picture powerhouses as puzzling as ever.

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