The Conjuring(7/20/2013)

Horror films tend to repeat themselves a lot, but there’s probably no trend within the genre that’s quite as annoying at this point as the “let’s pretend this is based on a true story” trope.  The genre has been playing this game for decades, but two of the strategy’s biggest pioneers were Ed and Lorraine Warren, a husband and wife team straight out of the P.T. Barnum school of shameless exhibitionism.  This married couple made a career out making up ridiculous stories about hauntings and demon-possession and selling them to publishers as “true stories.”  Their most famous “investigation” was of a “haunting” which would later be depicted in the book and movie The Amityville Horror, but they’re also responsible for other bad movies including a T.V. movie called The Haunted and the hilariously titled The Haunting in Connecticut.  The new film, The Conjuring, is supposedly based on a story that the couple have declined to tell until now.  This is implausible firstly because these two attention whores would never keep one of their “cases” a secret and secondly because there’s nothing about this particular haunting that’s any more sensational than the other stories they’ve sold over the years aside from the fact that the Warrens themselves play a more integral part.

The film is, in essence, yet another story about a family of seven that moves into a New England house where weird things start to happen.  The father and mother (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor) have no idea what to do, so they track down the Warrens (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson) who agree to help them with their haunting even though they’re beginning to be worn out by all their experiences with the paranormal.  The Warrens quickly realize that they need to perform an exorcism on the entire house, but to get authorization from the Vatican they need proof, so they set up shop in the house to try to get the photographic evidence they need.

At this point its pretty hard to argue that we aren’t smack in the middle of a weird cycle of very similar horror movies about haunted houses.  In the last five years we’ve gone through The Orphanage, Paranormal Activity (1 through 4), The Innkeepers, Insidious, Sinister, The Woman in Black, Mama, and all sorts of other relatively tame creepers that rely heavily on the image of ghosts suddenly appearing when you don’t expect them.  I’ve got to say, it’s getting old.  Normally when the horror genre gets into a rut like this we can at least have fun trying to tie the trend into some relevant social issue of the era in question, but I can’t for the life of me come up with a more compelling reason for this fad than “I guess a whole lot of people just simultaneously decided that getting frightened by unexpected loud noises is a fun thing to do.”

At their heart, almost all of these haunted house flicks are pretty much the same movie over and over again, but the best of them at least bring some new gimmick to the table: Paranormal Activity did the whole found footage thing, Insidious invented a semi-original mythology about astral dimensions, Sinister did the whole creepy evil snuff films thing, and so on and so forth.  The Conjuring on the other hand, is pretty damn basic outside of the fact that it leans in on the whole “let’s pretend this is based on a true story” thing.  In fact it’s in many ways a dictionary of tired haunted house movie clichés.  It’s got scenes of doors suddenly closing, its got scenes of things suddenly showing up in mirrors, scenes of ghosts showing up in a shot one moment and disappearing the next, scenes of children acting strangely, experts who try to hold technologically assisted séances, tons of pseudo-theology, animals behaving strangely, pretty much anything else you could name it’s here.  I don’t think there’s a single element of the film that we haven’t seen numerous times elsewhere.

There are more basic problems as well.  The movie has a very strange opening film-within-a-film, which doesn’t work very well at all and serves no real purpose other than to introduce a sub-plot that probably shouldn’t have been in the movie in the first place.  That sub-plot’s superfluousness is no small problem; though the movie only runs 112 minutes, it definitely could have benefited from some trims.  The kind of horror tricks that this film trades in kind of wear themselves out over time, especially when there isn’t much of a plot to carry the film otherwise, and much of their effect is gone by the time the film reaches its finale.

On top of all that, I didn’t find the film’s characters all that endearing.  The family that’s being haunted is common to the point of just being boring and bland.  As for the Warrens, even if you put aside the questionable ethics of turning these rather dubious real life characters into heroes, I found them to be rather uninteresting heroes.  The film’s screenplay turns them into faultless paragons of virtue, near saints who selflessly place themselves in the way of danger to help people who are besieged by ghosts.  Give me a break.  That’s about the least interesting way that these character could have possibly been tackled.  I don’t need June and Ward Cleaver butting into my horror movies and these are the last people who should be placed at the center of a story like this.

All that aside, the movie’s real problem is its unoriginality.  It’s a movie would probably be a lot easier to recommend if it existed in a vacuum.  People who have managed not to watch a horror movie in the last half-decade would probably be a lot more forgiving of it, because all of those tricks I listed do still sort of work.  Audiences are pretty much always going to be startled by jump scares, it’s pretty much an involuntary reflex, and the jump scares here are handled fairly effectively.  Director James Wan does know what he’s doing and he does even manage to build something of a genuine intensity in the film’s third act, but whatever skill there is in the execution is wasted on this dull material.  It’s a film that’s devoid of creativity in terms of story, in terms of imagery, and in terms of story and no amount of ingenuity behind the camera can make up for that.  I expect more from my ghost stories at this point and I expected more from The Conjuring.

**1/2 out of Four

Pacific Rim(7/15/2013)

Guillermo del Toro seems like an incredibly cool guy.  He’s great at reaching out to fans, he’s recorded some of the most entertaining DVD audio commentaries on the market, and he’s also proven to have some legitimate art house credentials when he needs to.  His problem is that he seems to sometimes get a little carried away with his exuberance and spreads himself a little thin across a whole bunch of projects that he never actually ends up making.  I mean, right now IMDB lists him as a producer, writer, and/or director on five different projects in pre-production including a re-telling of Pinocchio and a TV pilot called “The Strain” (which is based on a series of books which he co-authored).  He’s also announced all sorts of other projects like adaptations of “At the Mountains of Madness,” “Slaughterhouse Five,” “Frankenstein,” and “Beauty and the Beast” just to name a few, and we haven’t even gotten into his ill-fated gig as the director of “The Hobbit” before Peter Jackson took over.  All this from someone who hadn’t actually succeeded at getting a film made since 2008.  At long last del Toro has finally gotten one of his many projects out of his mind and into the real world: a neo-Kaiju film called Pacific Rim.

“Kaiju” is a Japanese word which means “strange creature.”  It’s also the name of a film genre which consists of giant monsters fighting one another; the most famous example is of course the Godzilla franchise.  In the world of Pacific Rim the word “Kaiju” has been re-appropriated to refer to a series of actual giant monsters that have been emerging from a portal deep in the Pacific Ocean to attack various coastal cities around the world.  Earth has responded to this however by developing a line of giant robots called Jaegers that can measure up to these monsters pound for pound and defeat them before they can cause too much damage.  However, there are drawbacks to the Jaeger program: each robot requires two co-pilots in order to withstand the burden of their psychological control systems, additionally the Kaiju coming out of the poral have gotten increasingly large and are beginning to outgun what these robots are capable.

As such, the film’s main story begins years after earth has de-funded the Jaeger program in favor of giant concrete coastal wall… because that’s a perfectly logical response to protect people from monsters that can apparently tear through entire cities without too much trouble.  When this wall proves as ineffective as you’d think it would, it’s decided to bring the Jaegers back before it’s too late.  As such they decide to bring back a veteran Jaeger pilot named Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), who hasn’t gone “behind the wheel” of a Jaeger since his brother was killed in a previous Kaiju encounter.  Still the man in charge of the project, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), believes in him and knows that he’s familiar with the technology aboard one of the last remaining Jaegers.  Still, he’s going to have to find a co-pilot fast and get ready, because if Earth can’t find a way to close the portal soon they could become overrun with monsters before they know it.

Sometimes I wonder if we put too much faith in directors, especially when they seem to be really passionate about a given project and that project isn’t a sequel or an adaptation of some best-selling book or something.  There’s very little about Pacific Rim that, on its surface, would have me all that interested in it.  If they’d released the same trailer but replaced Del Toro’s name with the name of the dude who directed Real Steel and I wouldn’t have been remotely interested.  But with Del Toro’s name it was one of my most anticipated films of the year, and after seeing it I have pretty mixed feelings about it.

On of the things that made the film seem so cool on the surface was its cool cast of trendy names like Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Day, and Ron Perlman.  However, it feels like Del Toro had to make a deal with the devil (and by “devil” I mean the studio) to get all these hip names because at the film’s center is a nobody named Charlie Hunnam, a hero who’s so bland and white that he makes Ryan Reynolds look like Samuel L. Jackson.  Maybe it’s not fair to take this out on Hunnam, because all that blandness seems pretty inherent to the boring character he’s being asked to play.  He’s basically just a less developed and less cool take on the Tom Cruise character from Top Gun and his character arc was just cliché and uninteresting.

Truth be told, the human story here in general isn’t really the best.  I kind of get the feeling that Del Toro started out with a list of elements he wanted like giant monsters, giant robots, Ron Perlman, exotic locations, and Lovecraftian alternate universes and then contrived a plot to fit them all in to this self indulgent hash of a movie.  It’s also got some dialogue that’s kind of cheesy, perhaps as an intentional nod to old school flyboy movies, but it’s cheesy nonetheless.  Still, there’s kind of a dumb charm to it all.  This is being described as a neo-Kaiju movie, but it reminded me of the even nerdier Japanese genre: anime.  It’s got an interesting world and I kind of wish that Del Toro had found a different format to display it than this sort of mediocre flyboy-movie tribute; perhaps a TV series or a videogame or something that would have allowed more of a macro view of this war against the kaiju.

Speaking of video games, if you thought Man of Steel’s action scenes were long, over-the-top, destructive, and CGI heavy this is not the movie for you.  The film is all about big fights between CGI creatures, and while there are theoretically real live people inside of the jaegers, that isn’t always readily apparent.  Still, these scenes are at least kind of different from the usual action scenes we see in Hollywood films, so there is value to them.  They weren’t transcendently awesome or anything, but they were fun.  In fact that could be said about the whole film.  I’d say that this probably stacks up about on par with some of Del Toro’s earlier forays into commercial filmmaking like the first Hellboy or Blade II.  If he hadn’t gone on to make more respectable movies like Pan’s Labyrinth I kind of suspect that this would have been something more like a pleasant surprise than the semi-disappointment that it is.

*** out of Four

The Journey Continues: Skeptical Inquiries into Family Cinema- Harry Potter: The Replacement Directors

The following is an installment in an ongoing series of blog posts analyzing contemporary family films that the author has previously resisted seeing.  This series is a sequel of sorts to a previous series called Finding Pixar: A Skeptics Journey, which applied the same treatment to the films of the Pixar Animation Studio.

I’m always surprised whenever I overhear someone casually say something like “I’ve never seen one of those Lord of the Rings movies, are they any good” or something like “is ‘Star Trek’ the one with the laser swords or the one with those guys with pointy ears.”  My first response to hearing things like this is “these people have to be lying, how could anyone be that oblivious to something that this ubiquitous in pop culture?”  And yet I’ve come to realize that these statements really aren’t that far removed from my long time resistance to the Harry Potter franchise.  I mean, this was a huge film franchise that was endlessly advertised and enjoyed by millions, and I completely skipped it.  It’s made me think about how these people could dismiss all these beloved franchises as just a bunch of silly things for kids and a bunch of weirdoes who should have outgrown such childish pursuits.

And yes, I’m more than willing to admit that a big part of why I continued to stick my nose up at Harry Potter and never give it a second look is that I frankly didn’t need one more nerdy thing under my belt.  It was bad enough that I’d seen ever episode of every Star Trek series, could recite the title of every James Bond film in chronological order, and knew more about the Academy Awards by the time I was twelve than most people should probably know in a lifetime.  I was not going to get swept up into some series about a twelve year old wizard.  It’s the same reason I’ve never touched a Dungeons and Dragons game and refuse to wear pocket protectors.

In many ways realizing this has helped me better understand why geeky cults can seem kind of weird and creepy when you’re on the outside looking in.  Seeing grown men talk about “muggles” and shit always filled me with laughter and so did watching people line up the day each one of those books was due to be released at midnight.  In retrospect it seems more than a little hypocritical to have had that attitude when I could speak on arcane aspects of Narn-Centauri diplomacy and was more than happy to rush out on day one to see all the Star Wars prequels.  There are of course levels of geekery that I’m not going to defend regardless of franchise like the learning of the Klingon language and the actual playing of “quiddich,” but I’ve come to realize that I maybe shouldn’t go casting stones at other fan cultures, especially not out of some sort of attempt to pretend I was better than “those nerds.”  Still, there is a difference between coming to respect other fans and agreeing with them, and given that my first forays into the world of Harry Potter didn’t work out too well I’m so far still pretty outside of that circle.

Of course I’m probably in good company in not much liking those first two movies and I’m kind of lucky that I knew what I was getting into.  Just about everyone who’s written on the subject seems agree with me that the first two films were problematic at best and that things got a lot better with the third, and in some people’s minds the best, film in the series: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.  Even the producers (possibly inspired by the box office dip between the first and second films) seemed to realize that they had made mistakes, and responded by giving Chris Columbus the boot.  These next two films show evidence of clear soul searching within the series as they try out a pair of new and altogether more interesting directors who sought to explore what kind of content and tonality could fit within the existing framework of the series.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

             The first director they decided to try out was a real doozy: Alfonso Cuarón.  Were it not for the fact that Alfonso Cuarón had directed this third installment, there’s a good chance that I wouldn’t be giving the series a shot today.  His reputation wasn’t quite as set in stone when he was first hired, but he’s a world-class filmmaker and easily the most prestigious filmmaker to direct one of these films.  More importantly, he’s pretty much the opposite of Chris Columbus.  While Columbus had made a career out of making dedicated children’s movies (and comedies for adults who aren’t much more discerning than children), Cuarón had solid indie credentials and was just coming off the triumphant success of his sexually explicit 2001 film Y tu Mamá También.  For Cuarón this job was most likely a spring board that would allow him to make larger productions like Children of Men and the long delayed Gravity, for the Harry Potter series it was a chance to start over and re-mold itself into something altogether more respectable.

Cuarón did indeed do a lot to improve this film, but one thing he wasn’t able to do was ditch the series’ love of stupid and over-long opening sequences.  This one was a little shorter than the previous ones, but it may well have been twice as stupid.  It starts with Harry puffing up a woman like a balloon, which is weird because we never see her changed back.  Not since Willy Wonka’s reign of terror have we seen someone so casually murdered in a family movie.  Then we get a rather bizarre scene involving a magical double-decker bus and a severed shrunken rasta’s head.  What the Fuck?  These opening scenes are just bizarre, they feel like they belong in a different series and it continues to confuse me why they keep getting made.   Fortunately things rebound pretty quickly once Harry gets on the magical train and things get altogether darker.  First we get a glimpse of the “Monster Book of Monsters,” a living book that tries to bite its readers.  I can’t help but wonder if Cuarón got that design from his friend Guillermo del Toro.  We’re also introduced to “Dementors,” which are these creepy grim reaper looking things.

This slightly darker tone continues throughout the film, though when I say “slightly darker” the emphasis is on the “slightly.”  The series hasn’t suddenly become Se7en, and for that matter it hasn’t suddenly become The Dark Knight, but things have changed a little since the last film.  For that matter, Harry Potter himself has also changed.  Daniel Radcliffe is getting noticeably older in this film and Harry is beginning to get into something of an angsty teenage phase.  He’s not some cute Dickinsian orphan anymore: he’s pissed about his place in life, about what happened to his parents (which still hasn’t exactly been explained), and about all the people who keep fucking with him.  This is the first time when Harry hasn’t been completely overshadowed by his sidekicks and actually seems like the most important presence in his own film.  I’m not exactly ready to call him a hero for the ages or anything, but they’re on the right trajectory at least.

When I looked at Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets I complained that these films were beginning to feel less like fantasy epics and more like “The Hardy Boys with Wizards.”  That’s still sort of true here, but at least the mystery at its center doesn’t seem like a complete retread of the last two.  I’m not going to say that all the business between Gary Oldman, David Thewlis, and Timothy Spall made complete sense to me or that all of it was satisfactory, but at least it was presented well and it didn’t involve yet another duel between Harry Potter and some proto-magical form of Voldemort.  Though I’ve got to say, Hogwarts’ hiring practices continue to seem rather suspect.  In the last three films we’ve seen them hire a conman, a werewolf, and dude with Voldemort sticking out of his head.  It’s come to a point where the introduction of a “new professor” has become analogous to a random red shirted dude going with Kirk and Spock on an away mission; you just know there’s going to be trouble.

This of course brings us to the film’s climax which, questionable werewolf CGI aside, was pretty damn cool.  The sudden reveal that Hermione has had a magical time travel device this whole time is way too convenient and raises a number of troubling problems, but if it can allow the films to go full on Back to the Future Part II for twenty minutes I can live with that.  I maybe would have liked a slightly more satisfying cap to the scene than “they fly up and save the dude,” and I also feel like they leave a loose thread dangling by not explaining Snapes’s reaction to being attacked by Harry.  Still, this was a much more creative and satisfying climax than Harry’s battle for the Sorcerer’s Stone or his fight against the Basilisk.

Ultimately I think what elevates this installments isn’t so much what’s in it as much as what isn’t.  Cuarón wasn’t able to completely rid the film of stupid stuff; the Draco Malfoy character is as ridiculous as ever and I’ve already talked at length about the opening scene, but the silliness isn’t nearly as omnipresent as it was in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.  If anything this film makes it clearer than ever what a waste of time that second film was.  In fact I feel like the first two films would have been better served if they’d been compressed into a single film and that this had been the first sequel.  So, this is a big improvement, but there are a lot of people who cite this as the best the series has to offer and I seriously hope that isn’t the case.  This movie is good, but it isn’t great, and this series has a lot more work to do if it’s going to convince me that this series as a whole is even successful, much less great.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

For all the praise that’s been leveled on it, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is actually the lowest grossing film of the franchise (which isn’t saying much since it still made almost a billion dollars worldwide).  I suspect that this says less about the film itself than it does with the general drop in enthusiasm that the general public had with the series after two lackluster Chris Columbus movies.  Still, their decision to bring on a real director seems to have paid off because there was a big box office rebound with the next film: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which would out-gross both Azkaban and Chamber.  The catch of course is that  the new director of that fourth film is a man named Mike Newell, whose most impressive credits up to that point had been Four Weddings and a Funeral, Donnie Brasco, and an almost forgotten Julia Roberts vehicle called Mona Lisa Simile.  Since directing his Harry Potter film, he’s gone on to direct a botched adaptation of Gabriel García Márquez’ Love in the Time of Cholera and the Jake Gyllenhaal bomb Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.  In short he’s a guy with a resume which screams “we only let this guy direct one of these for a reason.”  And so, all of my anticipation leading into these movies was directed towards Cuarón’s film and I hadn’t expected more out of this one than “more of the same, maybe.”

Holy shit was I wrong.  This movie is so so so much better than the three movies that came before it.  It’s not perfect, mind you, but this is the giant leap forward that I expected from Cuarón’s entry into the series.  And I knew I was going to be in for an improvement right away when the movie started and Harry’s idiotic aunt and uncle were nowhere to be seen.  I’m more than happy to put up with anything if it means not having to deal with twenty minutes of slapstick and magical forms of public transportation right up front, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that this film’s opening scene is kind of problematic in its own ways.  Not the very opening, that was cool, but the whole “quiddich world cup” thing was more than a little bit weird.  For one thing, it seemed pretty episodic and removed from the main story in much the way the slapstick antics were in the first films, but it also just sort of straight up confused me.  When Harry finally got to the school and no one was mentioning the terroristic attack by skeleton KKK members on a major wizard sporting event, I began to think I’d misunderstood the whole scene and that what I’d witnessed was in its entirety a dream sequence… but looking back at the Wikipedia summery I realize that I was right the first time, all of that was real and was just kind of superfluous to most of the rest of the film.

Fans of the books apparently aren’t big fans of that opening either, they say that it was an example of the filmmakers rushing through the material in order to fit everything into a 157 minute film, but that is perhaps inevitable given that this is an adaptation of a book that’s almost twice as long as its predecessors.  That would seem to be a problem for the filmmakers, but I suspect that its actually an asset in that it gives them an excuse to cut out all the stupid stuff that brought the films to a standstill in the past.  This one isn’t completely devoid of dumb shit; Draco is still a cartoon character, Mertyle the perverted bathroom ghost shows up again, and there’s an almost laughable scene involving a wizard rock band.  Still, the ratio of good shit to wack shit is getting better and better.  Also, this movie just generally moves at a much faster pace and whenever it slows down it’s for things that actually seem important.

The film also benefits from a pretty strong structure provided by the Triwizard tournament, which provides the film with three pretty strong action set-pieces.  Harry’s tangle with the dragon in particular stands out as the series best straight-up action scene to date, and is easily the special effects highlight (even if the CGI looks a little dated).  The only thing breaking up the parade of Triwizard events is an extended episode where the characters prepare for and then attend a Yule Ball.  In the back of my mind this series has been reminding me of the video game “Final Fantasy VIII,” which was also partially set in a school for spell casting warriors, and its interesting that both properties have key scenes set in formal balls.  Anyway, it is a little strange that the movie sort of drops everything to deal with all this, if I were writing it I would have brought the prospect of the Ball up earlier and spread all of the buildup to the event out more evenly instead of wedging it and everything about it into a small stretch of the film in-between the first and second Triwizard events.  Still, it is kind of amusing to see all these character deal with teenage stuff with all the same awkwardness that the non-magically-inclined had to.

It is of course a bit odd that Harry himself has so much trouble getting a date to the dance, I mean, shouldn’t taking down a dragon be more than enough to turn a guy into Hogwart’s number one pimp?  Maybe not, but it is indicative of Harry’s slightly unusual development as a character.  In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkabam Harry seemed to show a little more stride to his step and expressed a little more anger about his situation.  He might not have been the most confident kid in the world, but he was a lot more willing to step in and take control of a situation.  Here he seems to be back to being a meek and modest little wizard that keeps getting pushed into situations he’s not all that interested in.  Also his haircut in this movie is a lot dopier than in the last movie, but I digress.

This was the first Potter film to bear a PG-13 rating, and while it doesn’t exactly seem exponentially nastier than the previous installments, it does seem to have given Mike Newell license to drop the “family film” feel of the previous installments and make the movie like a proper blockbuster.  There’s more genuine danger to all the proceedings, and that’s especially true of the film’s finale, in which Voldemort himself finally shows up and is a lot more talkative than I expected.  I can’t say I fully understood all the magic involved in allowing Voldemort to hijack the tournament and send Potter into some other dimension.  I also thought it was kind of lame and distracting that our hero could be held at bay by a cheap-looking prop statue, and I also didn’t particularly like the fact that the whole scene ended on something of a deus ex machina, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a nicely tense finale and that it actually seems like a truly major event that will hopefully kick off the main conflict of the series.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is an imperfect and somewhat messy film, and I kind of expect that to be the status quo going forward.  Adapting long-ass books with rabid fans who don’t want a single thing cut isn’t easy, and there’s probably too much silliness in the DNA of this series for an installment to go by without its fair share of WTF moments.  All that said, this installment is successful beyond my wildest dreams, and I seriously wish that they hadn’t waited this long to deliver the goods.  If I’d known that the series could ever get this compelling I suspect I would have been a lot less friendly to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and I’m all the more annoyed at how much Chris Columbus squandered his opportunity to launch the series correctly in the first place.

In Conclusion

The auteur theory has failed me this time.  I thought for sure that it was going to be Alfonso Cuarón who would be this series’ savior, but it seems like it was actually Mike Newell.  Or maybe he was just working with a much better book, I don’t know, but something happened between these two films to give this series a much needed jump start.  Between the two films I’ve seen a slightly improved glimpse of this franchises lame beginning as well as a glimpse of its more promising future.  I don’t know if the series can replicate Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire’s success, and I do have reasons to suspect that the next two films are going to have their problems, but I’m still a lot more excited about seeing this series through than I was when I finished watching the last two.  Next Month I’m going to be looking at a pair of films from director Robert Zemeckis’ controversial foray into motion-capture animation: The Polar Express and Monster House.

Man of Steel(6/22/2013)

You know those polls that people do where they show pictures of various pop culture icons like Mickey Mouse, Super Mario, and Ronald McDonald to people all over the world to gauge how recognizable they are?  I’m pretty sure that if you did that with pictures of all the famous super heroes the one that would be most recognized is Superman.  However, if you asked the average person to list off any of the deeper characteristics or famous storylines that any of those given super heroes are known for there’s a good chance that people will know a lot more about Batman, Spider-Man, and maybe even the X-Men.  To some degree Superman is a lot better known as an icon than he is as a true character and the reasons for this have been debated for a while.  The prevailing wisdom is that he’s so powerful that it’s hard to really create any kind of believable threat for him and that he’s such an invulnerable boy scout that he can be hard to relate to.  As such, pretty much ever time they’ve tried to make a T.V. series, movie, comic book, or videogame about Superman it end up paling in comparison to comparable projects about Batman.

Perhaps the only exception to this is Richard Donner’s 1976 film Superman: The Movie and its 1978 sequel Superman II, which were both very awesome super hero movies for their time, although I don’t personally have all that much reverence for either of them.  Most of the rest of the semi-successful Superman media projects have been on television like “Superman: The Animated Series” (which was good, but didn’t compare all that favorably with Batman’s animated series), there was the mid-90s ABC series “Lois & Clark” (which was fun, but not overly memorable), and there was the WB/CW show “Smallville” (which some people seem to like for some reason).  When it finally came time to bring Superman back to the big screen in the super hero-crazed 2000s it was in the form of 2006’s Superman Returns which a sort-of-sequel to the old Donner films, and which a lot of people seemed to hate.  I for one didn’t think it was all that bad, but I didn’t necessarily think it was a home run either.  So now DC and Warner Brothers have decided to scratch that effort and take one more shot at bringing ol’ supes to the big screen and to do it they’ve enlisted none other than Christopher Nolan to produce and guide project and Zack Snyder to direct.

Like most Superman origin stories, the film starts on the planet Krypton, which is a lot more elaborately designed this time around than it was back in ’76.  I won’t go into all the details, but as usual a young Kal-el is sent to earth by his father Jor-el (Russell Crowe) and his wife Lara (Ayelet Zurer) before their planet and everyone on it are destroyed.  The big difference is that this time he steals the Kryptonian codex and sends it along with Kal-el, an act for which the rogue Kryptonian General Zod (Michael Shannon) declares to one day get revenge.  The movie then shifts thirty three years into the future, and shows a young Kal-el (Henry Cavill) traveling the earth under his assumed name of Clark Kent.  We learn through flashbacks how he was raised by Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) and also of his first meeting with a young reporter named Lois Lane (Amy Adams).

To some extent, this film is guilty of re-telling the same damn Superman origin story all over again, which is something that Nolan’s Batman films didn’t need to worry about so much if only because earlier adaptations of that franchise almost always began with batman as an established character.  Still I think that Zack Snyder, Christopher Nolan, and credited screenwriter David S. Goyer were right to sit down and give the character that definitive beginning this time.  The biggest change this time around is that they’ve made Clark Kent a much more human and much more reluctant hero this time around.  They explore how hard it likely was to grow up with weird and hard to control powers and also shows him being forced into the midst of battle rather than having him become a “super hero” over night.

Once again it was decided to have Superman played by a relative unknown in Henry Cavill, who imbues the character with just enough angst to keep him interesting while still making him something of an “awe shucks” Kansas boy.  The rest of the cast is also rich with well chosen actors.  Amy Adams makes a very good Lois Lane who’s strong, brave, and adventurous but a little less shrill the character has been in some iterations.  She’s closer to a believable modern journalist and it was nice to see Lawrence Fishburne brought in to play her editor Perry White.  Kevin Costner and Diane Lane are also good choices to play Kent’s adoptive parents, though both are used less than I expected because the “Smallville” portion of Superman’s life are (wisely) relegated to flashbacks this time around.  An actor with a much more prominent role than I expected is Russell Crowe, who man’s the film for the first twenty minutes and also reappears a few times later in hologram form.  I wouldn’t call this Crowe’s best work, but he does what the film needs him to do and it’s cool seeing him in the role that Marlon Brando famously took on in the Donner film.

Of course no superhero film would be complete without a super villain, and for that the Snyder and Nolan have tapped Michael Shannon to play General Zod.  Zod has traditionally been a fairly standard guy who wants to take over the world because he’s eeeeeeeevillllllll, but for this project they’ve given him a little more of a clear motivation.  Essentially, he’s loyal to the idea of Krypton beyond all fault, and his attempts to kidnap Superman and take over Earth are all part of a misguided attempt to rebuild his homeworld.  At his heart he’s still an evil conqueror, but there’s more to cling onto and Shannon give his maniacal side an intense physicality.  In short, I think Man of Steel does everything with the character that Star Trek Into Darkness was supposed to do with the character of Khan.  It doesn’t waste the audience’s time pretending that the character isn’t who you think it is, it brings in an actor who truly exudes an evil ruthlessness, and it gives the character interesting motivations.  Also, at no point does the film ever pander to having him or anyone else shout “kneel before Zod!”

But before I go bashing the new “Star Trek” movies too much I should probably stop and acknowledge that Zack Snyder does seem to have taken a few notes from the J.J. Abrams playbook for rebooting dead franchises.  In fact it wasn’t until I saw this version of the film and compared it to the 2009 Star Trek that I noticed just how similar the lives of Clark Kent and James T. Kirk are.  At least in these iteration, both were born in the midst of a crisis, both were raised in Kansas to be angsty young men, and both came to realize their true potential once the man who killed their respective fathers show up in the final acts.  He’s also shot the film on 35mm and in anamorphic in order to give the images a beautiful earthy and filmic feel.  This results in a little more lens flare than people are often used to seeing, but I think it’s more than worth it because this movie is flat out beautiful, especially when compared to the more workmanlike looks of the Marvel films.  That said, Snyder’s imitation of Abrams’ Star Trek films only goes so far: he’s taken the tonal elements that work from them and left behind their penchant for immature humor and out of place pandering and has also avoided any flawed attempt to fit his film into any old continuities, this is a reboot plain and simple.

One force in modern blockbuster filmmaking that Snyder does not seem to have paid too much attention is Bryan Singer, the director of Superman Returns.  There are a lot of things about that movie that people complain about, but one of the biggest ones is that it didn’t show Superman getting into any fights with comparably powered super humans, which is most certainly not the case with Man of Steel.  It takes a while, but once Superman is forced to contend with Zod and his comparably powered henchmen the battles are absolutely epic in proportion.  You get the real feeling that you’re watching people with god-like powers clash out in the open and leaving Akira level destruction in their wake.  I wouldn’t say that I was 100% in approval of every CGI shot in the film, but for the most part the effects were both massive and omnipresent and gave the film the absolutely epic feel that it sort of needed.

Man of Steel is significantly better than any Superman film I ever thought we’d see and it’s superhero origin film that I’d place right next to Batman Begins without hesitation.  And yet a lot of critics don’t seem to see it that way; at the moment it’s sitting at 56% on Rotten Tomatoes, and it’s in part because of that negative response that I waited almost a week after the film’s opening to see it.  I won’t be reading any of those reviews until I finalize my own, so I’m kind of left scratching my head as to what isn’t to like.  Maybe they thought some of the action scenes were a little over the top, maybe they weren’t too keen on re-watching this origin story, maybe they have some misplaced reverence for the Donner films, or maybe they just just haven’t forgiven Zack Snyder for Sucker Punch… I don’t know.  My biggest worry is that Marvel and the Iron Man franchise have somehow killed any thirst that critics and audiences have for ambitious and sincerely made blockbusters like this film and Nolan’s Batman films.  But for those of us who want an antidote to all the snark and frivolity of that brand of blockbuster, this is it.

**** out of Four

DVD Round-Up: 7/2/2013

Broken City (5/25/2013)

It used to be that Russell Crowe was one of those actors who was really selective about which roles he took and whose very presence was a sign that a project was really something to pay attention to.  Crowe still hasn’t gone the Pacino/De Niro route of taking whatever role is thrown at him, but if he keeps showing up in mediocrities like Broken City he’s bound to diminish his brand quite a bit.  He wasn’t alone though, director Allen Hughes (one half of the Hughes Brothers team) actually assembled a pretty solid and over-qualified cast to appear in this cookie-cutter crime film including Mark Wahlberg, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Jeffrey Wright, Barry Pepper, and Kyle Chandler.  On paper the movie is really promising and it’s filmed perfectly competently, but Brian Tucker’s screenplay is just not worth all the fuss.  It’s a typical “uncover the conspiracy” story and its interest in urban politics and corruption has been addressed much more intelligently and successfully on TV series like The Wire and The Good Wife.  It’s a watchable and moderately entertaining film, but definitely nothing to go out of your way to see.**1/2 out of Four

Gangster Squad (6/4/2013)

Speaking of crime movies that inexplicably manage to round up a vastly over-qualified cast, here’s another one.  Gangster Squad will forever be remembered as “that movie that needed to cut out a scene after the Aurora shooting,” largely because that fact is a lot more interesting than anything that’s in the actual movie.  Let’s put it this way: if you want to see a movie about detectives in 1950s L.A., you should see L.A. Confidential.  If you want to see a movie about a squad of cops teaming up to go after a flashy gangster, you should see The Untouchables.  And if you just want to see some action scenes set in 1950s L.A. you should just play the video game “L.A. Noire.”  That’s the problem with tying to make a film about gangsters, there are so many great crime films out there that there really just isn’t room for something like Gangster Squad which simply uses trench coats and Tommy Guns in order to wallow in violence for the sake of violence.  What’s more, this film’s near-celebration of vigilante violence is just gross enough to push this beneath the level of mediocrity and into the realms of the offensive.** out of Four

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer (6/18/2013)

The arrest of three members of the Moscow based punk group/activist collective Pussy Riot happened just a little over a year before the HBO premiere of the documentary Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, so if nothing else the filmmakers were really efficient in getting their film about the incident out really quickly.  Maybe a little too quickly.  I paid a decent amount of attention to the incident when it was going on (mainly because I was amused that it was forcing newscasters to say the word “pussy”) and since that was so fresh in my mind there wasn’t a whole lot of new information to be found in this documentary.  There are a couple bits here and there that manage to go behind the scenes and better clarify how the group works and what led up to their infamous “punk prayer,” but there isn’t really too much of that.  The documentary is effective at telling the basic story and I would recommend it to anyone who isn’t already familiar with the story, but those looking for new insights will be disappointed.*** out of Four

Upstream Color (6/26/2013)

The powers that be couldn’t be bothered to give this film a real theatrical release, so I’m not going to bother writing a full review for it either, though I’ll admit that it’s odd to be reviewing it alongside the rest of the early-year-release crap that will be filling out this round-up.  Shane Carruth made a pretty big splash in 2004 with his micro-budget triumph Primer, but then he seemed to disappear.  But he’s managed to come back this year with a film called Upstream Color, which is much better made than Primer but also much more confounding.  Primer was only confusing because it had a really complex time-travel plot, but this one is difficult mostly for its unconventional style and general weirdness.  In fact I’m not exactly sure how I could summarize the film without making it sound even more bizarre than it seems while watching it.  My usual criteria when faced with judging a film I didn’t really understand is to ask whether it made me want to re-examine it and understand it better, and in this case the answer is a definite “yes.”  The film is too well made in its own odd little indie way and Carruth is someone I sort of trust to know what he’s doing, but I’m definitely going to need to watch this one again before I find myself definitively embracing it.***1/2 out of Four

Mama (7/2/2013)

Guillermo del Toro needs to be a lot more careful about which projects he decides to lend his name to, because he’s going to seriously dilute his brand if he keeps attaching “Presented Guillermo del Toro” to lame horror movies like Andy Muschietti’s Mama.  This movie isn’t quite as vacuous as Del Toro’s last charity case, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, but that’s not saying much.  To be fair, this does at least have a semi-original setup involving children being raised in the wilderness and coming back home with a demonic protector, but once the actual horror starts this becomes yet another by-the-numbers J-horror inspired haunting movie with an un-scary CGI ghost at its core.  Good performances by Jessica Chastain and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (AKA Jaime Lannister) make this at least tolerable and there are one or two decent moments along the way, but there’s no really worthwhile vision at the film’s center to elevate it into the ranks of the memorable.** out of Four