June 17, 2013

Man Of Steel (06/17/2013)

Lettergrade: C+

Wow, a good number of my friends seemed to really hate Zack Snyder's Man Of Steel over the weekend. Maybe knowing that when I went to see it myself today is what softened me up a bit: I really didn't think the movie was all that bad… In fact, I was surprised to find that I even kind of liked it for certain segments.

The main thing that cut through my cynicism, I think, is the stellar casting and a handful of really strong character moments spread throughout. The downside is that those moments are often way too brief and far between. Since the movie spends so much time detailing the intricacies of Krypton society at the beginning (backstory which I don't think I was ever all that curious about to begin with), and so much time in the back half with the big, kinetic, highly-destructive action sequences (where two indestructible guys punch each other endlessly, destroying most of Metropolis in the process), you don't really get much of a look at what Henry Cavill's take on Superman really is.

He seems to have found a performance that smoothly blends the character's wholesome boy-scout'dness of Christopher Reeve's portrayal with kind of a tortured altruistic loner quality… Every time you get a flash of what he's doing with the character, you really want to see more of it. When we first meet him (as an adult) he is a transient, wandering from place to place and helping people however he can, much like Bruce Banner or The A Team. The movie, of course, charts his decision to emerge into a public figure and become the Superman that we know. If it has a failing, it's that it severely shortchanges detailing who Superman is in favor of showing us scenes of what Superman can do.

I couldn't help but think of the Superman movies I knew as a kid more or less constantly during this one… not only because the film retells Superman's origin story a bit, but also because it brought back General Zod, Superman II's primary baddie (so memorably played by Terence Stamp) and recast him with Michael Shannon (of Revolutionary Road and HBO's Boardwalk Empire). Shannon is fine in the role, but a curious pattern of 2013 is that both this movie and Star Trek Into Darkness have recast incredibly memorable screen villains for their franchise revivals… moves which seem highly questionable to me because it's pretty tough to go up against people's fond memories of screen heavies of cinema past.

Along those lines, I think the movie did make a serious tactical error in retreading so much material from the earlier Superman flick. Whenever Man Of Steel had a scene that has an equivalent in the 1978 version (such as all the origin stuff, scenes with ma and pa Kent in Kansas, any verbal throw-down with Zod, et al), I almost always felt that the 1978 version was better. Although Kevin Costner is one of the strongest parts of this new movie, Jonathan Kent's death wasn't handled as well for me as it was 35 years ago. Having him die in a twister, much like the dad in the movie Twister did, lacks the simplicity and poignant beauty of Jonathan dying more or less of natural causes. "All those things I can do... All those powers…" laments Christopher Reeve's Clark in the earlier flick, "and I couldn't save him." Superman could rush in to pull someone away from a tornado (although I understand that the point of the scene is that Jonathan is adamant that he not do so), but he can't save someone from a fatal heart attack, a sullen reminder of the fragility of human life that hangs over much of the 78 picture and seems to guide much of the earlier Superman's character.

My other main thought is that doing an extended sequence on Krypton right at the start of the movie (much like the 78 one did) invited unfavorable comparisons to the earlier picture, and more than that, was simply a little confusing and kind of boring. I believe that if you were to lop that opening segment off and start the picture with Clark saving the people on the oil rig, the whole first part of the flick would have been significantly more gripping. All the Krypton backstory could have been revealed much later in the picture, when Clark himself learns about it. It might not have worked, but I think it'd be a lot more engaging than starting the movie with a bunch of bulky, lukewarm "Lord Of The Rings In Space" bullshit.

In the last 7 years, we've gotten two very different examples of how these movies can go. Bryan Singer's Superman Returns payed reverential tribute to the earlier movies in 2006… very much to a fault, I thought. It kept the musical themes and a lot of the same set designs from the earlier picture for no clear reason, struggled to establish awkward continuity links with 1980's Superman II, and cast a Superman for the primary reason that Brandon Routh (an actor I like, but who was a little miscast and underused) resembles the late Christopher Reeve.

Now in 2013, Synder's Man Of Steel pretty much ignores the Christopher Reeve version completely, reinventing and rewriting aspects of the franchise as it sees fit. To tell you the truth, I almost always prefer that another entry in a mega-franchise like this has the freedom to do its own thing and find its own voice rather than to be encumbered by past installments. Although I am not entirely in love with this version, I'm glad that it got away with doing what it wanted to.

MOS is not my ideal version of what a Superman movie is and can be, but it does take the Superman mythos and adapts it to the bleak, modern post Batman Begins style of superhero picture with some moderate success while still hanging on to enough of what makes Superman Superman to keep me interested. I've got several beefs with it, sure - and frankly, I can't imagine a scenario anywhere down the line where I'd ever want to watch this movie again - but if we're talking about a decent few hours at the cinema, it didn't let me down.

A few additional thoughts:

-When Zod and his army are imprisoned and sent to the Phantom Zone early in the picture, am I the only one who thought that it looked like they had been encased in individual flying space dildos?

-Another example of questionable production design: Krypton is a super advanced society, but they communicate with each other using Pin Point Impression toys that you can buy through the Sharper Image catalogue? (with compliments to Mike S. for the joke)

-At the end of the movie, when Clark starts at the Daily Planet a few days after the picture's big action climax, it seems that everything's back to normal... the slimy co-worker asks Lois if she wants to go to the game because the MLB decided not to cancel their schedule in light of the GIANT FUCKING ALIEN INVASION THAT DESTROYED MOST OF METROPOLIS AND KILLED COUNTLESS THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE.

June 14, 2013

This Is The End (06/14/2013)

Lettergrade: D+

During the end credits of This Is The End, I learned that the movie is based on a 2007 short film called Seth And Jay Vs. The Apocalypse. I haven't seen that earlier version, but I suspect this material would be really funny at a short film's length… When forced to come up with enough padding to get to 90 some minutes, it's a slow, meandering slog briefly punctuated by a few good laughs.

One of the online critics I really like described the movie as a 90 minute in-joke. I think that's right on… the flick has actor Seth Rogen (who also co-wrote and co-directed) playing a narcissistic version of himself - actor Seth Rogen - alongside Jay Baruchel, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, and Danny McBride (among others) who all do the same.

The idea is that Jay, a successful actor in Canada, has come to L.A. to visit his old friend and former Undeclared co-star Rogen , but is dragged to a wild party at James Franco's house that he doesn't really want to go to. Whilst on a cigarette run, the ground shakes and blue light shoots down from the sky, beckoning all those who are worthy up to heaven, and leaving all others to suffer in the chaotic, fiery wasteland below. Noticeably, Seth and Jay are NOT among those pulled up to heaven. When they get back to the raging party at Franco's house, no one at the party knows that anything has happened because none of them were among the chosen either. Rather quickly, the movie finds our half dozen heroes taking refuge in Franco's mansion… Things on the outside only seem to be getting worse and worse, and the tensions and suspicions in the house steadily rise. All in all, it's kind of like a less funny version of Stephen King's The Mist.

At times, aspects of the movie seem like a semi-brillant and very dark take-down of the thinness and excessive bullshit of celebrity culture. That's the kind of ballsy subversive statement I could really get behind in a movie like this! Unfortunately, those sentiments never stick around for long… this is a wide-release Hollywood picture we're talking about, after all, and as the story continues, it kind of becomes clear that, yeah, these people are a little bad, maybe, but really they're just a good deed or two away from maybe gaining access to the pearly gates themselves.

And that's the thing that kind of bothers me most about this movie, on a philosophical level. If you're going to go down this path, it just feels wrong to build in an escape clause so at least some of the characters can get to a happy ending. When all the boys in the house speculate about what the hell is going on, Baruchel is the one who realizes that the scenario they've found themselves in is a lot like the end of the world as described in the book of Revelations. It's a legitimately creepy moment that reminded me a bit of a similarly scary beat in the first Ghostbusters movie where Dan Aykroyd and Ernie Hudson are in the Ecto 1 together, talking about the same part of the Bible. Unlike Ghostbusters, though, This Is The End never really finds a way to pivot back away from its chilling Biblical reference and make it work toward the conclusion. Even if each of the guys had embodied a different one of the deadly sins or something else quasi-Biblical like that, I would have been a little more cool with all screen time where people are just kind of waiting around, but I don't think the movie has that kind of sub-layer going on.

When Baruchel and the others realize that they're still on the smokey remains of Earth because they just haven't been very good people, how are we supposed to read that? The in-joke might be, "well, this is funny because Jonah Hill and James Franco aren't really like that." Seth Rogen - the real one, I mean - might know that… and their real-life friends might know that… but is there a laugh there for most of the rest of the population who, outside of their movie roles, may only "know" those guys from occasional appearances on Conan? I'm not sure that there is… there's the rhythm, cadence, and attitude of a joke there, but what's the joke?

Why am I going on about this, though? I have a feeling that the concept of this movie was born when Rogen, co-screenwriter/co-director Evan Goldberg, and a bunch of their friends were sitting around one night saying, "You know what would be funny…?" I don't think there's any big attempt at anything deep here, despite the fact that deep subjects are alluded to semi-frequently. And in the end (of the movie), the Backstreet Boys are performing in heaven and all seems to be juuuuuust fine. No lessons, morals, point, or purpose for anything you just saw. I feel like they could have done a little more with the premise - I don't think it's ever even mentioned that several of them are of different religions while others still are very public atheists, for example - but hey, it's not my movie: I was just dumb enough to pay 8.50 to see it.