2016-06-30
Early summer has brought us a trifecta of family films about men in search of themselves, and in search of some sort of change that will bring meaning to their day-to-day existence.

If these characters were kids, women, or members of minority ethnic groups, you'd likely have touching independent features. But since these are various incarnations of white guys (well, one is half Mexican, one is an adopted Kryptonian), you wind up with one action film and two comedies. Fortunately, two of the men succeed in their quest, and in their movies. Only one winds up not much better off for the journey--nor do we end up any better for seeing the film.

Superman Returns Superman ReturnsOften, summer action films substitute special effects for human emotions. Somehow, though, at the center of this summer action movie beats real heart. Yes, there is Christ imagery aplenty and echoes of Dali paintings and even "The Da Vinci Code," but last time I looked, that's not what hooks the kids. Or me.

What I love about Superman, and why I loved bringing the kids to this movie, is that he is an approachable, understandable superhero. His secret identity isn't a rich guy with a butler and a secret cave; he's a regular Joe, from a poor family in the heartland, who is constantly shunted aside by busy bosses and good-looking girls because none of them see the true makings of a hero before them. Isn't that how every kid--okay, every one of us--often feels?


"Superman Returns" deals in the mythic--fathers and sons, learning to understand and embrace your strength, sorting out which battles are yours and which aren't. It's about what each of us does to cope with our basic alone-ness. And it's about the strength that is found in love and compassion.

I love that Jor-El sends his son to Earth because of human beings' "infinite capacity for good." I love how when ordinary folks see Superman doing good, they find the strength to do good also. I wish our politicians would start leading us by our noble instincts, rather than by fear and loathing.

Of course, none of this matters to kids if there isn't plenty of action, humor, and characters to root for. "Superman Returns" has all of these things. It's as much about the transformation of a frightened, asthmatic child as it is about the machinations of good old Lex Luthor. (In fact, the most unbelievable part of the film, according to the adults I saw it with, was that Lex could have managed to keep both the mansion and the yacht after paying estate taxes. Not likely!)

Both Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor and Kate Bosworh as Lois Lane brought an underpinning of reality to their characters that had been missing in the broad interpretations that came before. Both worked well for me. The casting of chiseled James Marsden ("Cyclops" from X-Men) as Lois's fiancé was inspired, and he became one of the most sympathetic characters, as you saw him also struggle to do the right thing, even if it meant saving Superman, and possibly losing Lois.

All in all, the franchise is in good hands, and the noblest instincts of the viewers are called forward as good old Kal-El searches for his purpose and his home. And while everyone else was seeing Christ imagery, I (who thinks "The Iron Giant" is one of the great films of all times) saw Iron Giant imagery everywhere. In the final scene of strength and sacrifice above the earth, I almost expected Superman to pass the Iron Giant, who was off doing the very same thing. If you like Superman and you have kids and you haven't rented "Iron Giant," go to Netflix right now and do so. He, too, finds his purpose in life.

You go, Kal-el, er.. Clark… er, Superman.

Nacho Libre

Nacho LibreThis is a sweet, silly film with a heart of gold and no bad language (thanks in part to its Mormon director/producer team of Jared and Jerusha Hess, who also brought us the cult classic "Napoleon Dynamite"). It has many of the same slow, ironic rhythms as "Napoleon Dynamite," also features two sweet, loser friends as heroes, and speaks volumes about the transformational value of friendship and the irreplaceable strength that comes from having a best friend who has your back, no matter how goofy you both are.

Jack Black plays the offspring of a Scandinavian Lutheran missionary and a Mexican Catholic deacon who try to convert each other but wind up getting married. After he's tragically orphaned, he is brought up in a dirt-poor Catholic orphanage, where he cooks horrendous meals and dreams of joining the Mexican Lucha Libre circuit as a wrestler named Nacho Libre.

When a beautiful young nun arrives at the orphanage at the same time the orphans' daily allotment of broken tortilla chips is stolen, the hapless young friar turns to a life of wrestling to earn food money for the children.

What makes the film work is that Jack Black throws himself so totally into the role (and the ring) and so completely believes every crazy thing his character does and every nutty thing he says and sings. He finally finds himself, and happiness, when he stops pretending and "comes out" as the wrestler he's always been underneath. Throughout the entire movie, Nacho Libre and his sidekick Skeleto never manage to win a match--until the end, when they truly know what they're fighting for. Nacho Libre is as much a fairy tale as is "Superman Returns," although a much loopier one. It manages to respect faith even when questioning some of its rules and practices. What other movie has a song in which the hero proclaims with gusto, "I am, I am a real religious man!"?

Click ClickThe sad part about this Adam Sandler film is the could-have-beens. The premise of "Click" was so good that it could have become a classic, serving to be Sandler's crossover from foul-mouthed teen icon to adult leading man. It could have done for Sandler what "Groundhog Day" did for Bill Murray.


But it seems Sandler didn't trust his audience enough to let them mature along with him (he's nearly 40, for crying out loud). Instead, "Click" attempts to smash a foul-mouthed, bodily-function humor first half together with a wistful, grown-up second half. The whole thing ends up being like one of those mismatched ads for Sour Patch Kids candy--first it's sour! Then it's sweet! Then it's gone!

But the premise is a good one--an underappreciated ordinary guy wanders into the "Beyond" section of Bed, Bath, and Beyond (talk about the ultimate product placement), where Christopher Walken gives him a "universal remote" that works not just for television, but for life. It can fast forward, rewind, and change languages. It's very handy--till the fine print kicks in, and our hero ends up fast forwarding his whole life, living it only on auto pilot.

At the beginning, our ordinary guy is the typical Sandlerian hero--an overgrown adolescent in an adult body. I guess he feels he needed to do that, but I actually found it sad when he got the boy next door (who is admittedly a bully, but has a really troubled home life) into big trouble by telling a lie, which would be believed solely because Sandler's character is a grown-up.

Some reviews likened this film to a current-day "It's a Wonderful Life." But in "Wonderful Life," the hero discovers he had spent his life helping people--in fact, he's practically saved the whole town of Bedford Falls by following his innate sense of goodness and decency. But the hero of "Click" didn't learn anything about becoming a better person, helping others, or empathizing with the bullied kid next door. The most he learns is that life is about spending more time with your family. Nothing against that, of course, but since the movie brings up the meaning of life, is that really all it can find?

I went to this movie with my kids, my husband, and my dad, and while none of us are prudes by any means, the language and sexual humor didn't seem to enhance anyone's enjoyment of the film. It kind of put a damper on things, and trust me, this isn't always the case. It's strange that both this film and "Superman Returns" are rated PG-13. One I would definitely take kids to. This one, had I known, I would not.



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