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Thursday, May 15, 2003 02:20 pm

Movie Reviews - Daredevil, The Hours

Daredevil

Daredevil is the Marvel Comics take on Stan Lee's Batman. Like Gotham's Dark Knight, Daredevil is a costumed vigilante who prowls New York to mete out justice and restore order, a mission prompted by the death of his father. Both have costumes no sane person would wear in public, have remarkable gadgets, and commit stunts that defy the laws of physics. Their mania prevents them from leading normal lives, as they assume the mantle of "Tortured, Righteous Martyr." Both vent their frustrations by beating the snot out of any criminal who has the misfortune of crossing their paths. Though Daredevil never caught fire like Spider-Man, the Hulk, or other seminal characters from the House of Ideas, it has maintained respectable sales over the years and built a cult following.

Writer and director Mark Steven Johnson admitted to being a longtime fan of the hero. In bringing Daredevil to the big screen, he recognizes the character's shortcomings and strengths--as well as the similarities he shares with his more famous counterpart. He goes Tim Burton's Batman one step farther in fleshing out his hero's alter ego, blind lawyer Matt Murdock (Ben Affleck). While Bruce Wayne has remained an anonymous figure behind the mask in those dismal movie adaptations, here we get to know what makes Murdock tick. Far from superhuman, Murdock is a man with whom we can empathize. His emotional and physical flaws keep him down to earth and accessible. It's refreshing to see a superhero swallow a couple painkillers after a long night of crime fighting, or falling for a deadly assassin (Jennifer Garner's Elektra), risking heartbreak.

Daredevil sets out to track down his father's killer, the New York crime boss known as Kingpin (Michael Clarke Duncan), but finds the maniacal villian Bullseye (Colin Farrell) in his way. Though there are few surprises, Johnson's film noir approach is refreshing. The streets of New York are shimmering with water and bathed in shadow, with shafts of light briefly exposing what often goes unnoticed. Murdock, a man whose moral compass is out of whack, is in danger of becoming that which he's sworn to rid the world of. Unlike Batman, he has no problem killing his enemies, yet he struggles to find justification for this. His crisis of conscience gives the film a sense of morality other comic book adaptations have lacked. Affleck does a surprisingly good job conveying Murdock's angst--it's a multilayered performance you wouldn't expect to find in such a film.

While Affleck is brooding, Farrell channels Frank Gorshin's Riddler from the old Batman T.V. show. Bug-eyed and manic, Farrell's Bullseye is in constant overdrive. His dark humor ensures that the film doesn't ever become too heavy, providing a welcome respite from the romantic scenes between Affleck and Garner, which lack passion. Though the actress perfectly embodies the long-legged ideal, her character is nothing more than sketchy.

The action scenes are elaborate. Though an obviously computer-generated climax is a major letdown, the rendering of Daredevil's "radar sense" is impressive and provides the film with its best moments. The hero senses the shape of things by hearing the tiny sound echoes that bounce off objects. Johnson and his technical crew use set pieces that show the outlines of objects in wispy tendrils rendered against a dark palette. The effects are startling, violent, and beautiful. They distinguish the movie from the crowded pack of action films.

Johnson's script errs on more than a few occasions. (Murdock's first meeting with Elektra in a public park made me cringe.) But Daredevil fans will be pleased by the many allusions to the various writers and artists who have brought the hero to life over the years. Though it won't supplant Spider-Man or Superman: The Movie as the best comic-book movies, Daredevil allows its title character to finally emerge from Batman's shadow, revealing the hero in greater depth than any film has done for his counterpart.

(Running time 1:45, rated PG-13)
Grade B

The Hours

Stephen Daldry's adaptation of Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Hours delivers a serious message and nearly buckles under its weight. Charting a single day in the lives of three women from different time periods, The Hours shows all three stuck in times of quiet desperation. The technique isn't entirely successful. We keep waiting for the women to lash out against the worlds that restrain them. But this never happens.

The women are author Virginia Woolf (an unrecognizable Nicole Kidman), repressed 1950s housewife Laura Brown (Julianne Moore), and present-day New York City book editor Clarissa Vaughn (Meryl Streep). The day in question finds Woolf writing her novel Mrs. Dalloway at the English cottage she shares with her devoted husband, Leonard (Stephen Dillane); Laura reading that novel in her Los Angeles home; and Clarissa, unwittingly assuming the role of Dalloway as she organizes a party for her former lover, Richard Brown (Ed Harris), an award-winning poet who is dying of AIDS.

The one thing these women share is despair; none has the life she desires. Woolf battled depression for years and wrestled with voices, hallucinations, and suicidal tendencies. Her husband hoped a move to the country, away from crowded London, would heal her. Woolf resents their exile and takes little comfort from her new environment. Laura is no less desperate. She does not love her well-meaning husband (John C. Reilly) and doesn't know how to mother their needy son (Jack Rovello). She rattles around her cookie-cutter suburban home searching for purpose and affection. Clarissa takes another approach. A perfectionist, she fills her day with busy tasks, losing sight of the big picture and what should be most important: her lover, Sally (Allison Janney), and daughter, Julia (Claire Danes). She's quick to meddle in the lives of others at the expense of her own relationships and career.

By the end of this long day, each woman will make a choice that radically changes her life and the lives of those around her. Each will find a sort of freedom, though not necessarily happiness. Each bargains and compromises for a life that inches closer to what she really wants.

Lovers of fine acting will not be disappointed. Kidman is a revelation. She obscures her good looks to completely become Virginia Woolf. When expressesing Woolf's frustration to her loving husband, Kidman delivers one of the best screen moments of the year. Moore plays a far more desperate version of the 50s housewife she brought to life in this year's Far From Heaven. Streep crafts a complete character out of thoughtful glances, passionate declarations, and moments of pensive introspection. In spite of the film's dour tone and bittersweet resolution, the acting alone may be worth the price of the ticket.

(Running time 1:54, rated PG)
Grade B