So I saw Man of Steel and I have some thoughts about it

Posted: June 20th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , | No Comments »

Let’s get the main thing out of the way right now, even though it might color your reaction to the rest of this post: I liked Man of Steel. I actually liked it a lot.

Now let’s talk about why.

Minor spoilers follow.

I’m not going to get into an in-depth analysis of the movie (that’s been done, extensively and thoughtfully, by plenty of others already), but I will say I was almost dreading what I was going to see. In spite of my best efforts, I had read the concerns and complaints of reviewers and fellow nerds, and nearly all of it put me on high alert. And yes, there are things about Man of Steel that bother me — it’s not a perfect movie. But as I said on Twitter, those instances were like biting into a couple of rancid peanuts that have found their way into a sundae. Surprising and a little gross, but nothing that ruined my enjoyment on the whole. It’s still a hell of a sundae.

Hey, nobody said every simile was going to be gold.

Anyway, something happened while I sat in the theater. Even as I prepared to wince at everything that worried me to begin with — the somber tone, Clark on a crab boat, Russell Crowe as Jor-El and Kevin Costner as a jerky Jonathan Kent — I found myself, well … buying it. For the most part, everything was fitting and made sense. Sure, a lot was different, but even if aspects of the story weren’t “canon” (ugh) it stayed true to the core aspects of these characters and often echoed past storylines from the Superman mythos. (It’s worth noting, Superman celebrates his 75th anniversary this year and this is hardly the first time he’s gone through some significant tweaking.)

Before I start going hardcore on this, let’s go to the lazy writer’s friend – the bullet list! Here are some things I liked about the movie (note I’ve only seen it once, and that was a couple of days ago — I’m not going to remember everything so feel free to add your points in the comments):

• Krypton: I appreciated the nods to the crystal palace versions used in previous films, but I liked it more that Man of Steel‘s Krypton felt like a high-tech planet where Jor-El would still ride a dragonfly-lizard thing. When this actually happened my wife turned to me as if questioning such an egregious level of bullshit, and all I could do was grin at her. This was pure-grade, Silver Age lunacy and I loved it. I thought the liquid-metal technology was kind of neat, too.

• Henry Cavill as Clark/Superman/Kal-El: When I first saw stills of Cavill in costume, I hated it. Hated the suit, hated the plastic look of his hair and face, hated the lack of any “Superman-ness” in spite of all the trappings. Well, I was wrong. Cavill is a convincing Superman and acquits himself well as Angsty Clark. Yes, this Clark is exceptionally emo, but the reasons for it are solid and it works, thanks in large part to the actor’s work. And when he does experience joy — even if briefly — it bursts out of Cavill in a way that makes me wish the movie had more of those moments. We won’t know how well he’ll pull off the “mild-mannered reporter” version of Clark until we get a sequel, but there’s reason to hope.

• Amy Adams as Lois, everybody else: Casting is pretty solid; Adam’s Lois is strong and pro-active, Diane Lane’s Martha Kent is pragmatic but nuturing, and Laurence Fishburne’s Perry White … eh, it’s OK, I guess. Jackie Cooper remains my personal gold standard, but I was still glad to see a Perry who had a chance to be a heroic, self-sacrificing bad-ass (actually one of my favorite scenes in the film). And the dads — Russell Crowe had an entertaining take on Jor-El, who is a strategist as much as a scientist, and Kevin Costner was surprisingly effective as Jonathan. Honestly, and this might be heresy, this might be my favorite version of the character. I know, I  can hardly believe it myself.

• The effects: Particularly, the speed. When Superman takes off and starts breaking multiple sound barriers, you can almost feel the rattling booms as everything whistles by in a blur. And of course he’d use his speed in a fight, which the movie does a good job of getting across while still giving viewers a chance to actually see what’s happening. The CGI is smooth and mostly unnoticeable, and the sheer scale of things is amazingly well-done. I think this is the first time Superman’s raw power has been depicted in a way that matches our imaginations.

• The nerdy: Kelex! “Guardian!” Lexcorp! Steve Lombard!!

(But no Jimmy Olsen?!)

As I said, there’s a lot to like about Man of Steel. But it is a Zack Snyder film, and if you’ve had problems with his past movies you’ll likely have the same problems with this one, too. Characterization is weaker than it should be; Lois Lane, for example, gets a throwaway line about being a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, but beyond that it’s as if the filmmakers were relying on the audience already having an idea of who Lois is and filling in the blanks themselves. If you’re going to reimagine an iconic character’s entire universe, you can’t cut corners like that with the supporting cast — it’s a cheat.

The movie also tends to drag whenever Snyder needs an exposition dump, though to be fair the movie doesn’t feel like its nearly two-and-a-half hour run-time. And there is a lot of destructive spectacle, with very little real-world consequence.

Which brings us to the Krytonite elephant in the room.

Major spoilers follow.

• The Battles of Smallville and Metropolis: A lot has been made about these knock-down, drag-out set-pieces of nonstop action that essentially levels Smallville and what looks like at least a three-mile-square section of downtown Metropolis. And with good reason. The fights between Superman and the would-be conquering Kryptonians are incredible, and exactly what you would expect from a throw-down between super-powered beings. The problem is what doesn’t happen. Superman isn’t someone who just saves people (we’ll leave the Jesus imagery for another discussion), he’s someone who protects people. There is a subtle difference, and it boils down to Superman being the kind of person who would try to prevent people from being hurt in dangerous situations, not just rescuing them after the fact. And this doesn’t happen in Man of Steel.

The first fight with the Kryptonian rebels begins on the Kent farm, but soon makes its way to Smallville’s main street, which of course is lined with stores filled with people. Superman tells some passers-by to “get inside,” but that’s about it as far as taking care of the populace. Soon Superman, the Kryptonians and the U.S. Army are blowing the living crap out of the town, knocking down buildings, blowing up gas stations and otherwise flattening the place with more destructive power that a Kansas twister.

Later, after destroying a World Builder on the other side of the planet while a second one literally crushes a huge section of Metropolis, Superman speeds into the city to survey the devastation and have a last battle with Zod. (A lot has been made of Superman choosing to tackle the machine located in an unpopulated area instead of the densely packed City of Tomorrow, but this is missing some key dialogue: When working out their plan, it’s discussed that the Metropolis World Builder — manned by the Kryptonians — is linked to and powered by the first. The first has to be destroyed before the second can even be attacked. That’s a job for Superman.)

Soon enough, Zod attacks and the fight is on. And while it begins in the already destroyed section of Metropolis — which must cover miles and represent millions of casualties — it quickly moves on to the still-standing, not-at-all-evacuated rest of the city. And Superman does nothing to stop it.

He doesn’t try to keep it to the already crushed part of Metropolis. He doesn’t move it out of the city. He never tries to save anyone or prevent the shrapnel and collateral damage that no doubt was raining down on people. In fact, at one point Superman drives Zod’s face along the side of building, shattering glass and concrete, and both combatants punch each other through building after building. People are often seen running for cover, even as explosions rock the damaged skyscrapers they unlucky enough to be in. At this point Superman is as much a danger to the citizens of Metropolis as Zod. But of course, if the fight moved out of the city, we wouldn’t be able to get to the bitterest peanut of all.

• The Killing of Zod: The fight between Superman and Zod reaches its climax in what looks like Metropolis’ version of Grand Central Station, which of course is filled with people. Superman has Zod in a headlock, but Zod has figured out how to use his heat-vision and is slowly burning his gaze toward a group of cornered civilians. Superman tells  Zod to give up, but Zod has just finished explaining how — at a genetic level — he will not, cannot, quit. Superman begs, “Zod! Stop!” and Zod answers, “Never.”

And then Superman snaps Zod’s neck.

OK. OK. From a storytelling point of view, I understand why Snyder and co-writer David Goyer made this choice. Superman famously has a no-kill policy, something he never violates. But other than being an inherently good guy, it’s never really explained why. Why would Superman feel so strongly against killing, especially since it would be so easy for him? Killing someone in his very first time out as a superhero (an act he obviously and instantly regrets), not to mention someone who represents the last link to a heritage and culture and identity he’s just been made aware even exists, would certainly be enough to make the thought of killing again impossible.

Except it’s bullshit.

First of all, the movie never explains how killing Zod might be the impetus for Superman’s vow never to kill (again). The audience is never even given a clue that this might be the case; Zod is dead and everyone just kind of moves on without reflection. It’s another cheat. Really, it’s just lazy storytelling.

And look, I’ve never had to kill someone to know I don’t want to kill anyone. I know it’s wrong. Are you telling me Superman wouldn’t have figured this out? I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: The main reason Superman “works,” what makes him a hero among heroes, is that he’s not only inspirational but also aspirational. Superman is the best not because we believe in him, but because he believes in us. We can be better. We should be better. That’s something Superman himself continually aspires to.

Let me tell you a story. When Superman: The Movie came out I was eight years old and seeing that film in a theater impacted the way I watch movies to this day. But it didn’t really have anything to do with the movie itself. What I remember most happened when the helicopter carrying Lois is falling from the top of the Daily Planet building, and Clark starts running for a place to change, pulling his shirt open to reveal the bright S-shield underneath.

And the audience spontaneously cheered. They kept cheering, whistling and shouting, “Yeah! Go Superman!” when he stepped out in full costume for the first time seconds later, not quieting down until both Lois and the chopper were safely in hand. And that’s when I saw the power of cinema to move audiences, to inspire the full range of emotion and transport people to a place where they could experience the joy of believing a man could fly.

That, at its core, is what’s missing from Man of Steel. In spite of mighty swings, there is little joy in Smallville.

Does that make it a bad movie? Not at all. As I said before, I liked it. I like it a lot and I actually like it more as I let it sink in. Are there parts I wish had been done differently? Sure. The problems I have with the movie could have been solved so easily; Superman could have moved the fight to a corn field outside of Smallville, he could’ve been shown trying to get at least some people to safety in Metropolis. Killing Zod, though it makes sense in terms of storytelling, could have been avoided.

But I also realize that this is just another interpretation of a 75-year-old character, one that has survived many, many reimaginings in that time. And this isn’t even the worst one. Far from it. Superman will be fine. Hopefully the sequel (Sequels? Dare I hope?) will move in a direction toward a more familiar Man of Steel without ceding any of the new territory its already claimed. As it is, he’s practically there already.

It’s not a bird. It’s not a plane. It’s still Superman.


A brief review of Spring Breakers

Posted: March 25th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: | No Comments »

Spring_Breakers_cast

One thing you can say about Spring Breakers is it’s not a middle-of-the-road kind of movie, and its bound to inspire strong opinions on both ends of the scale. Another thing you can say about Spring Breakers is that it’s an artless kind of art film, an inch of a movie that dreams — desperately — of being deep.

The film by Harmony Korine (Kids, Gummo) is described by the studio as “a crime comedy-drama thriller,” which I can only assume means everybody wanted to make sure this adolescent fantasy of a music video had every base covered. More specifically, the movie is about four college students (Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson and Rachel Korine) who want to go to St. Petersburg, Florida for Spring Break, badly enough that they’re willing to break rules (and laws) to get there. The only one to hesitate at all is Faith (Gomez), and that’s only after they hook up with James Franco‘s drug dealing Alien.

Let’s point out something that’s probably already obvious: Spring Breakers wants to speak to its audience, but it chooses to do so with a bullhorn and a sledgehammer. Faith is a “good girl,” who calls her grandma to let her know she’s alright and attends cool-kid Bible study when she’s at school. When they meet Alien, it’s like meeting someone from another world. GET IT? (The names of the other women are unimportant because, really, the audience is never given a reason to care. Faith is the only one to get any kind of characterization, and even then it’s only enough to give her a second dimension. It’s not surprising that she gets on a bus about halfway through and literally leaves the movie, never to be seen again.)

From there, things quickly fall apart, fueled in equal parts by Alien’s hip-hop hillbilly influence and the girls’ own tendency toward self-destructive mayhem. Booze, drugs, money and guns take their toll on the group until it all ends in a sequence that is amazing in its unbelievability.

It doesn’t help that the 10 pages of dialogue on display is terrible, wooden and often veers directly, with no tap of the brakes, into the ridiculous. The acting is non-existent with the exception of Franco, who single-handedly keeps the movie afloat with his addictively hilarious, over-the-top performance. Franco brings a clownish menace to Alien, and I’d be willing to bet that much of his highly quotable dialogue was improvised. The film’s structure is ambitious and interesting, and while it could have worked, it just ends up being repetitive and repetitive. The way the film is edited winds up being a cinematic version of dubstep, and though it’s clear Korine is enamored with the idea of “atmosphere,” what’s left is ultimately just as substantial.

A friend of mine saw Spring Breakers with my wife and I, and he has a theory. The film, he says, might be a statement on everything it puts on display. And by extension it’s an indictment of the audiences who watch movies that really are that superficial, and who, reality-TV style, get a thrill out of watching the corruption of a couple of former Disney princesses. If that’s true, then Korine is a genius, a subversive filmmaker who has fed the viewers exactly the kind of artificial, unhealthy buffet of boobs and bullets we’ve learned to gorge ourselves on, served wrapped up in a package as bland and familiar as Styrofoam.

I’m willing to concede that this might be true; there is certainly enough in the way the movie is made to support that. But there is also plenty to lend weight to the idea that Spring Breakers is just a dumb, dumb movie.

Franco really does pull off a great Krispy Kreme, though.

Spring_Breakers_skimask_Alien


Great Caesar’s Movie Club review: “A Boy and His Dog”

Posted: January 5th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , | 4 Comments »

Let’s get something out of the way right from the start: A Boy and His Dog – a 1975 film featuring the unlikely combination of Don Johnson, Jason Robards and a shaggy dog at the end of the world – is not a good movie. It is, however, an entirely AWESOME movie.

The scene is what used to be the American Southwest after both World War III and World War IV, the second being a nuclear war that lasted five days and covered the entire globe. As you might suspect, the place is a shambles.

As part of the war efforts, the various governments got into some kooky stuff including ESP and animal intelligence, which apparently gave the world Blood, a telepathic mutt who gives Johnson’s Vic tireless history lessons when he’s not bird-dogging chicks for him in exchange for food. Thanks to an unfortunate side effect of the genetic tinkering that gave him his powers, Blood has a complete inability to forage for himself.

Like most of the people who are left, Vic spends most of his time just trying to survive, stealing or scavenging food when he can and trying to hide from the many dangers lurking around the wasteland. Women are a rare treat for Vic, and through a combination of mind powers and a sensitive sniffer – and after first extorting a bowl of popcorn outta the 18-year-old horndog – Blood manages to pinpoint one at a local movie screening (good news, both popcorn and porn will survive the apocalypse).

Side note: Vic’s attitude toward women is, let’s say, fucked up. Early on in the movie he’s angry because a woman he finds in a bunker is too mutilated to have sex with; oh, and also she’s dead. However, it’s implied that the “dead” part isn’t necessarily what puts the brakes on Vic. Also, he’s a rape ’em and leave ’em kinda guy, so y’know, ick. Also also, Blood calls Vic “Albert” for some reason. Just thought I’d throw that in as a palate cleanser.

Back to the story: The girl at the screening turns out to be Quilla (Susanne Benton), and after following her into some sort of underground vault and finding out she’s Into It, the pair fight off some raiders before spending the night in a giant boiler hiding from something called Screamers.

The audience never see the Screamers, and it is one of the greatest things in the movie. From the dialogue you get the idea that Screamers used to be human, people who have been mutated by the radiation and, like the Man-Thing, make people burn at their touch. In the tradition of old B-movies with rudimentary special effects and limited budgets, the Screamers are never anything more than a vague green glow and an unholy moaning that relentlessly gets closer, and closer, and …

It’s surprisingly effective, and an imaginative way to give the audience a brief and sidelong glance at the larger world in which the movie’s set.

Back in the boiler, Blood (dryly voiced by Tim McIntire) is badly injured and takes an instant dislike to Quilla. Turns out it’s for good reason, as after spending a night of sharing bodily fluids and tales of her life in the underground town of Topeka, Quilla knocks Vic out and runs home.

Luckily, she leaves her access card behind (hmmm …) and Vic and Blood track her to the entrance to Topeka. Lured by curiosity and the promise of booty, Vic decides to follow her down, telling Blood he’ll be back with food and help. Blood thinks this a pretty bad idea, but Vic – as usual – doesn’t listen. It’s the same sort of hard-headedness that’s going to get him in trouble back in Miami.

Once in Topeka Vic finds out that – surprise – it’s all a trap. Quilla was sent as bait to bring Vic to the village because … well, Topeka needs men. Healthy, fertile men, which sounds great to Vic until he finds out inseminating 35 women is going to mean being hooked up to a sinister-looking machine and a lotta screaming. And not the good kind.

If Vic had been paying attention in the first place, he might’ve noticed Topeka is a menacing police-state (natch’). And if that didn’t give him pause, he really should’ve thought twice about the way the town looks as if it’s straight out of the 50s, with everyone wearing dungarees and face-paint that would make a mime shudder.

Topeka is so aggressively weird that it’s creepy, and nearly throws the movie off the rails by being a complete left turn from what came before. But somehow it manages to fit, and I have to give credit to Don Johnson.

(And there is a sentence I never thought I’d type.)

Johnson is bratty, crude and vibrates with an adolescent energy that borders on dangerous, and he carries it throughout and does his job – he carries the movie. It’s not an easy task, considering, but he pulls it off.

Running the show in Topeka is Jason Robards, who as Lou Craddock is kinda phoning it in but, hey, he’s Jason Robards so he’s still pretty excellent. Robards is the one who planned Vic’s abduction and is also Quilla’s father (dun DUN duuun!). When he’s not hooking kids up to insemination machines he seems to spend his day sending people to “the farm,” an unseen place that nobody ever comes back from. He does this with the help of The Committee and an unstoppable hillbilly killing machine named Michael.

Soon enough, Quilla has second thoughts and helps free Vic, who promptly goes about being a dumb-ass and wrecking the place instead of just making his get-away. Luckily, the two make it back to the surface, where they find Blood on the verge of dying. Because of his injury and non-existent foraging skills, Blood is starving to death. Quilla urges Vic to leave Blood, telling him how he’s practically dead anyway and that Vic needs to get crackin’ on being a provider for her. Blood’s voice is slowing fading from Vic’s mind.  He’s being pulled back and forth between the two and …

And then you get the craziest, wrongest ending ever. I’m not going to spoil it here, but Ho. Lee. Crap.  It’s a finale that will have you laughing and groaning at the same time, and it’s perfect. If for nothing else than the ending, A Boy and His Dog is worth watching and then inflicting on your friends – it’s that kind of movie.

Movie Clubbin’!

The United Provinces of Ivanladia

Note: A Boy and His Dog is based on a Harlan Ellison short story of the same name, and it’s definitely worth a read.

Keep an eye out for the next Movie Club selection – to be announced soon!