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She has the answer: Roberts in Nancy Drew.

An Enterprising Young Lady

 

By Laura Leon

Nancy Drew

Directed by Andrew Fleming

As a girl, I devoured Nancy Drew books like other kids scarfed chocolates. I had the complete collection, with a preference for the 25-chapter earlier editions (because I preferred the 1930s style their dust jackets evoked). By volume four (The Mystery at Lilac Inn), I realized that nothing more serious than a sprained ankle or a very slight concussion would ever befall the titian-haired teen detective, and while I was perhaps disappointed about the absence of dangers far more sinister, like the threat of white slavery or subtle torture, I couldn’t give up on the girl. The best part of the series, published under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene, was the way the stories allowed the reader to solve the case alongside Nancy. That, and the fact that she drove something called a blue roadster.

While past filmed depictions of the sleuth ranged from inexplicably scattered (Bonita Granville) to utterly innocuous (TV’s Pamela Sue Martin), Andrew Fleming’s choice of Emma Roberts as Nancy is inspired. OK, she looks a lot younger than the 18 she’s supposed to be, but she’s got the steady poise and requisite smarts to do the job. Interestingly, Fleming and co-screenwriter Tiffany Paulsen keep Nancy, her attorney father Carson Drew (Tate Donovan) and what little we see of their hometown of River Heights decidedly retro—positively Rockwellian—before transplanting the action to Hollywood, a cinematic milieu that might appeal more to tweeners in the audience. Here, poor Nancy is deemed weird by schoolmates who look like they wandered in from any number of Nickelodeon shows. And while she is uncharacteristically (for readers) hurt by their rejection, she soon finds solace in doing what she does best—in this case, unlocking the unsolved murder of film great Dehlia Draycott (Laura Elena Harring). The resulting case involves hidden wills, dastardly henchmen, narrow escapes, and plenty of opportunity for Nancy to show that anybody, with a modicum of intelligence and the great foresight to plan for any and all consequences, can succeed.

There’s much to admire about this Nancy Drew, not the least of which is its refusal to turn our heroine into today’s usual film version of a sophisticated (i.e., sexually active and credit-card-ready) young woman; in fact, there is a funny twist to the standard makeover montage. The filmmakers bring on Nancy’s longtime beau Ned Nickerson (Max Theriot), a dreamy youth whose wistful longing for the girl detective is tempered by the fact that he completely understands her need to be, well, Nancy Drew. Ned is a tricky character, one which easily could have been a flat stereotype, but the screenwriters and Theriot understand the complex situation of a man being in love with a woman who can run circles around him. Moreover, they depict Ned as someone who, like Nancy and her father, is above and beyond trends and social status. Watching them, you can’t help but see a very happy marriage down the line, with Ned providing warmth, stability and the occasionally needed strong shoulder on which Nancy can climb—the better to sneak into a secret passage—and Nancy continuing to pursue and solve mysteries far and wide.

Far trickier to work around is the movie’s playing fast and loose with time: When in the world is this supposed to have taken place? Nancy’s frocks are 1960s sweet, complete with knee socks and penny loafers, and she shows great facility using phonographs, rotary phones (indeed, the appearance of a cell phone signifies danger) and old- fashioned movie projectors. Dehlia Draycott (a nice bit of Keene alliteration) was supposed to have died in 1981, but the most modern images of her, mainly from her movies, show a woman in a flapper dress. Fleming has said in interviews that he liked the joke of inserting retro Nancy in the midst of mod L.A. It’s not always a successful ruse, although Nancy does have the last laugh when her sartorial selections are deemed “the new sincerity” by a fashion magazine. More problematic for diehards like me is the fact that Nancy’s stalwart best friends Bess Marvin and George Fayne are not allowed to assist; instead, we get the absolutely most annoying sidekick Corky (Josh Flitter) ever to exist in the movies, and his nearly-as-annoying bitchy trendsetting sister and friend, as Nancy’s partners in crime. As if!

The film’s lack of overt promotion and sarcastic tone make this an endearingly sweet, mostly successful attempt to bring a long loved heroine to a bigger audience. Besides, when’s the last time you heard “A secret passageway!” exclaimed with such heartfelt excitement?

Lightning in a Bottle

Once

Directed by John Carney

The second scene in John Carney’s wonderful modern musical Once is the kind of simply composed but deeply effective segment that embodies the entire film. It is nighttime, and a busker, whom we met in the opening scene playing a rollicking cover tune outside a Dublin storefront on a gray afternoon, is now playing a darker, more emotionally taut tune. His acoustic guitar is practically threadbare, with holes where his pick has gouged away at its hull. The street is otherwise empty. The camera closes in on him, slowly, as he strums forcefully, sour notes and all, until his voice strains over the passionate climax. “If you have something to say, say it to me now,” he cries, his eyes winced tight. He is completely lost in the song. As he quiets to a close, the camera recedes to reveal a girl there, watching him, unnoticed until that moment.

A huge hit at this year’s Sundance festival, Once is the rare film where seemingly minor elements align to make something transcendent. The premise is terribly simple, really: A guy, played by Glen Hansard (of Irish rock group the Frames), is a street musician in Dublin. He is struggling to get over an ex-girlfriend, who’s off in London, and unsure about his own talent. He meets a young girl, a Czech immigrant mother played by newcomer Markéta Irglová—the lead characters both go unnamed, by the way—with whom he finds a collaborative spirit, and who helps him work through his girl trouble and set off in pursuit of his dream. Over the course of a week, they write a bunch of songs and make a record together. Maybe they fall in love; it doesn’t matter. Once has been billed as both a musical and a love story, which has been enough to put off some cute-fearing audiences, but it’s more than that. The film is about the ability of music to convey emotion, create bonds, and, ultimately, to heal like no other art form. Characters break into song because that’s how they communicate—because they’re actually musicians, not just because it’s a musical.

Simply filmed, with plenty of single- camera scenes, Once occasionally looks grainy and cheap, giving it a documentary feel, especially in the outstanding creative scenes. Hansard’s expression as Irglová first plays piano for him is priceless: You can practically see the gears turning in his mind, and the moment’s spontaneity is genuine and beautifully captured. Irglová’s reactions are that of a musician actually learning the song on the spot. It’s a truly striking sequence; you see the spark between two creative spirits in a way that, outside of documentary, has rarely been captured this well.

This is where the music really comes in. Much has been made of Carney’s decision to cast real musicians, rather than actors, in the key roles, and it was absolutely the way to go. So much of the film revolves around the experience of creating and performing music that to have, say, Ewan McGregor belting out these songs would have rung hollow. (Plus, as we know from Moulin Rouge, he simply cannot sing.)

More should be made, however, of the fact that Hansard and Irglová (who was 17 years old at the time of filming) wrote their own songs for the film. As with any good musical, the songs do all the work, so the acting, while actually very good, is secondary to the performance segments. The small gestures made in the dialogue all funnel into in the songs, which are extraordinary. Hansard and Irglová may have been working from Carney’s template, but their musical and lyrical contributions should have earned co-writing credits. Simply put, Once is both the best musical, and the best film about music, in a very long time.

—John Brodeur

Power Off

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

Directed by Tim Story

Simply put (in keeping with the dumbed-down style of Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer): The Fantastic Four are a crashing bore. The angle of this sequel, at least going by the title, is the emergence of the Silver Surfer (voice by Laurence Fishburne), an alien who slaloms over earth as the point man for an intergalactic entity—called, imaginatively enough, Galactus. Galactus cruises around the universe looking for worlds to devour like some oversized (and very dusty) Pac-Man, though this minimally engaging rendition of the End of the World doesn’t occur until well into Rise of the Silver Surfer—by which time many audience members may be hoping that the gigundo dust ball will snack on the film’s characters and save them from the extenuating tedium of the foursome’s adolescent interactions.

Droningly directed as a comic-book-on-film by the relentlessly desultory Tim Story, the sequel follows our heroes as they flex their respective powers and personality quirks: Richard Reed (Ioan Gruffudd) is the brainiac elastic man, Johnny Storm (Chris Evans) is the human torch, etc. Richard and Sue Storm (Jessica Alba) are planning their wedding, and this dull conflict—being an on-call superhero wreaks havoc with their time management—takes up nearly the first half. The only comic relief is the sight of Sue summoning her forcefield, which onscreen looks about as impressive as Alba doing a deltoid isometric. When the Surfer finally arrives, his rippling metallic angst adds a tiny glimmer of interest, at least until the pointless meddling of Dr. Doom (Julian McMahon) detours what little momentum generated by the Surfer’s green-eyed enlightenment.

Aside from the occasional not-so- special effect, Story relies on flattering close-ups of the stars to build character, but despite the physical assets of the cast (especially Alba and Evans, the most boringly attractive actors to appear in a major motion picture this summer), the larger-than-life attributes of the Fantastic Four are deflated by their mundane dialogue and motivations. The most depressing moment in this utter waste of time comes when Johnny accidentally transfers his flaming powers to Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis, rising star of The Shield), restoring the Thing to a man again and giving him pause to smile. The sight of Chiklis’ avaricious grin is an unintentional poke at the sheer insipidness of the movie he’s in.

—Ann Morrow


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