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Turn down the hype 

Mark Palermo takes a mid-year breather.

There’s a great moment in Superman Returns, a variation of an effect that opens Robert Zemeckis’ Contact, that’s an unintended summary of the present blockbuster season. The Man of Steel looks down on Earth from outer space, and is inundated by a cacophony of the planet’s sound waves.

So many movies emit so much loud hype that it’s difficult to know which are worth paying attention to. Things get more troublesome when a film like The Devil Wears Prada is packaged, marketed and sold as anti-hype counter-programming. The film version of Lauren Weisberger’s bestseller is efficiently directed and well-acted, but that doesn’t vindicate its assumption of viewers’ spoiled consumerism. Nineteen-eighties capitalist odes like Risky Business and The Secret of My Success can at least now be looked at as greed-era relics. Focused on heroine Andy Sachs’ (Anne Hathaway) pursuit of careerism, The Devil Wears Prada’s reversal of gender only thinks it’s dignifying genre.

The “devil” of the title is fashion magazine editor Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep)—who Weisberger based upon Vogue editor Anna Wintour—a pampered tyrant who hires Andy as a personal assistant. Andy learns her lesson in the end, but involvement with her pursuit requires identification with her desire to assimilate—selling out her friends and values while stepping up the corporate ladder. The Madonna songs on the soundtrack befit these material girls. What could make for smart satire is unexamined as straight comedy. That the movie’s sold its soul isn’t enough. It assumes you have to, too.

Midway through 2006, it’s a pattern that many of the loudest-hyped movies are the most forgettable. Not since sequel-crazy 2003 (where a new Fast and the Furious was accompanied by another Charlie’s Angels, Bad Boys and Legally Blonde) has a summer blockbuster lineup been so inert.

Reflecting on the good movies so far this year, three of the best feature musical performances: the communal, celebratory Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, the wizened, grateful Neil Young: Heart of Gold and the urgent, alive Prairie Home Companion. All three find brilliant filmmakers (Michel Gondry, Jonathan Demme and Robert Altman) investigating how performance can build understanding.

The most worthwhile films at 2006’s half-point find ways of using the medium to articulate our similarities. Akeelah and the Bee is a must-see family movie, chronicling a displaced girl’s discovery of confidence. Chen Kaige’s The Promise makes spectacular visuals an extension of the heart’s unreason. United 93 brings September 11 back to its initial helpless doom. Running Scared portrays childhood at prey in a culture that gets off on its own extremes. Click has Adam Sandler acknowledging and then stepping through his patented comic arrogance. Superman Returns, despite its misprioritized last half, is Bryan Singer’s pop examination of the distance between gods and men. And in ferocity, social consciousness and filmmaking gusto, The Hills Have Eyes shames every other entry in The New Sadism.

Also: Tsotsi, Inside Man, Nacho Libre, Grandma’s Boy, Mission: Impossible III, Over the Hedge, Friends with Money, 8 Below, 16 Blocks, District 13, Ice Age: The Meltdown, Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and The Matador. There’s good stuff slipping through the cracks of 2006. Recognizing it just requires tuning out the promotion.

Don’t slip through. write: palermo@thecoast.ca

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