Sunday, June 16, 2013

Man of Steel (mild spoilers)

Superman has been away for a long time. When we last saw him on screen he was in the middle of a self-conscious attempt to evoke the tone of the 1980’s Christopher Reeve films, an attempt that rang false in age when superheroes need a dark side. While most people would prefer to pretend that Superman Returns never happened, it was an honorable effort. Now comes Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, an intermittently successful resetting of the franchise that moves to give Kal-El a shot of the duality and conflict that imbues the most successful superheroes of recent years. Unfortunately for Snyder, the fact that the film also required a third act proved to be too big an obstacle to overcome.

There’s a healthy dose of Kryptonian politics at the top of Man of Steel. As the planet crumbles, Jor-El (Russell Crowe) argues for an effort to send children of the doomed civilization into the stars. He and his wife (underused Ayelet Zurer) plan to launch their son Kal-El towards Earth with a (shakily explained) repository of Kryptonian genetic material. There’s a soldier named General Zod (Michael Shannon) who holds out hope for carrying on the planet’s society somewhere else but who needs the material that Jor-El has blasted into space. Even as Krypton collapses Zod and his allies are incarcerated (Krypton seems to take its legal procedures very seriously.), but the destruction of the planet sets them free to roam the universe looking for Kal-El. It’s when Kal-El and the movie arrive on Earth that writer David S. Goyer engages with the central questions of Man of Steel. What kind of man will Kal-El, of course now known as Clark Kent, turn out to be? Will human society accept that man, for better or for worse? For Clark’s acceptance of the good to have meaning he must be tempted by something else, and in the movie’s construction that something else is an ordinary life. Clark can live on Earth among humans if he doesn’t reveal his powers, and we see numerous scenes of Clark struggling to control his abilities and wrestling with his future. As Jonathan Kent, Kevin Costner is a fine, weathered presence and serves as a symbol of a planet in need of something more. (Costner’s death is a pure Spielbergian tear-jerker.) Earlier Superman films gave short shrift to the Kents, but Man of Steel ives Jonathan and Martha (Diane Lane) their place as the source of Superman’s humanity. 

Man of Steel suffers from a need to explain itself. Michael Shannon is a strong Zod, but is saddled with numerous speeches explaining his duty to the people of Krypton. (We’re told Kryptonians are bred for certain roles; Kal-El is the first naturally born child in years.) The adult Clark (Henry Cavill) gets a speech from Jor-El (Crowe pops up as a sort of plot-moving hologram.) about his background and even Lois Lane (Amy Adams) gets a much needed conversation with Jor-El at a critical moment. Cavill is physically ideal for the role of Kal-El and he brings a welcome intelligence, but he possesses almost none of the wit Christopher Reeve brought to the role. The conception that Lane discovers Clark's identity early on will take a good deal of the fun from future installments. When Zod and his soldiers (Antje Traue is good as the obligatory cold and sexy sidekick.) arrive on Earth then Man on Steel devolves into a series of fights. Clark is now in command of his powers, and he and Zod roll and tumble through a succession of  Kansas cornfields and small businesses before eventually hitting Metropolis for the movie’s climax. A subplot involving an Army Colonel (Christopher Meloni), a scientist (Richard Schiff) and a bomb that could destroy Zod’s ship is woven into the final battle but the details are given short shrift.

The strongest moments in Man of Steel are the quiet ones, from the apprehension with which  Clark explores a ship from his home planet to the reserved dignity that Costner brings to all his scenes. It’s never a real issue whether or not Clark will decide to help humanity, so to overcome the limitations of the character Zack Snyder overstuffs the movie with fights and includes a final moment between Superman and Zod that I’m pretty sure is not in the canon. We’ll inevitably get a sequel to Man of Steel, and I hope that Snyder and producer Christopher Nolan are willing to let their hero find his place in the world that they have remade.

Thursday, June 13, 2013


A good, short appreciation of Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire. Time for a rewatch. (HND)
Wings of Desire, which won Wim Wenders Best Director honors at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival before opening in America in 1988 among a slate of summer-movie sequels and pseudo-tent-pole blockbusters, is acutely melancholic, in the way that anything can be reasonably said to be acutely melancholic. Wenders manages to capture an ineffable mood, a whole mode of being, with the knowledge that its very ineffability means that it'll slip through his fingers. It's gloomy and rapturous, imposingly grand and fleetingly light, all at once.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Redbox Diaries #4: Not Fade Away

David Chase's Not Fade Away is the story of a forgotten and never-named 1960's band that feels emotionally honest about what it must have felt like to start a band in a place (suburban New Jersey) and time when soldiers from Vietnam were greeted as heroes. No protests here. Douglas (John Magaro) takes up the drums in the hope of meeting girls and eventually becomes singer of a garage band with aspirations to prove that rock music is an "art form." Chase's conceit is that the truth of rock's power lies in the blues of Blind Willie McTell, Leadbelly, and other and that the Beatles were lightweights. It is the Rolling Stones who are the true messengers, and the film begins with an imagined depiction of an early meeting between Jagger and Richards. The music in Not Fade Away is heavily tilted towards Douglas and his band mates covering blues standards, and it's a sad irony of the film that the band implodes (despite getting the nod from an insider played by Brad Garrett) just as Douglas discovers a knack for songwriting. Chase juxtaposes the musical advances that Douglas is making against his stifling home life, with an excellent James Gandolfini as a father who can only try to relate to his son from another time. It's in these domestic scenes that the movie threatens to crack open and become something more personal, but Chase keeps his distance and the movie (which in its first half contains huge time jumps) feels as jagged as one of those Sopranos episodes where 2/3 of the time is spent on one of Tony's dreams. As Douglas's dream girl Grace, Bella Heathcote has smarts and a Deschanel-like winsomeness but the script only gives her a few moments - in an underdeveloped subplot involving a troubled sister (Dominique McElligott)- when she isn't a vessel in which Douglas sees his own reflection. The best shot in Not Fade Away is the subtle camera move that Chase uses to pull away from Gandolfini the last time we see him. It's arguably a better ending than Chase gave Gandolfini in The Sopranos. Chase has given Not Fade Away a beat, but I wish he'd given his young rockers bigger hearts.

Monday, June 03, 2013

Short Term 12

Here's the first trailer for Destin Daniel Cretton's Short Term 12, a prize-winning festival favorite that I blogged about previously here. It hits theaters in August and you can follow news about the film on Twitter here.

Franchise Ladies

I've been having a Twitter conversation today with my friend Sarah about Star Trek Into Darkness and specifically the issue of sexism in the film. Sarah is among those upset about the infamous and superfluous "Alice Eve in her underwear" scene, and she sent me this link that argues that another big summer franchise picture does a better job of giving its female characters something to do. I may have to see for myself.
Now let’s contrast that to Fast & Furious 6. If Star Trek Into Darkness offers a tiny slice of cheesecake, Fast & Furious 6 offers up a big fat wedge, garnished with raspberry sauce and chocolate shavings. But it also has far more female characters than Star Trek Into Darkness does. More importantly, far more of them are doing things other than being pretty. Gisele (Gal Gadot), Riley (Gina Carano), and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) are all gorgeous actresses, and they’re in costumes that show off their curves. However, these women manage to look that good while also racing expensive cars, shooting at baddies, and engaging in hand-to-hand combat — you know, playing central roles in the actual plot of the movie.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Celeste and Jesse Forever

Rashida Jones is best known for playing Ann on Parks and Recreation; she’s an awkward best friend with dreams of domestic bliss. Jones is an adept comedienne, especially when called upon to play her character’s romantic fumblings, and her gifts are on full display in Celeste and Jesse Forever. Jones also wrote the screenplay (with Will McCormack), and the film serves as a coming out party for her gifts as a writer and a dramatic actress. Jones plays Celeste, a Los Angeles “trend forecaster” who initially appears to be married to the goofy artist Jesse (Andy Samberg). The initial scenes of the two joking around in a car are a bait-and-switch however. Celeste and Jesse, friends since high school, are separated and in the process of divorcing. The script alludes to the issues in the marriage without showing much, and that’s a smart choice. I was prepared for the theme of male immaturity to play a larger role, but Jesse (whom Samberg plays as man surprised by his desire to do right) and his new relationship takes a back seat to the story of Celeste moving on to the next chapter of her life. As an actress Jones doesn’t shy away from making her character look a mess; as Jesse makes plans for a baby with new girlfriend Veronica (Rebecca Dayan), Celeste starts smoking weed and makes a mistake that almost costs her career.

Don’t be fooled by the presence of Jones and Andy Samberg, Celeste is a drama that occasionally nods to comedy with mixed results. There are a few uneven scenes with Elijah Wood as Celeste’s business partner, who tries too hard to subvert the sassy gay friend cliches, and I wanted Emma Roberts to have more fun as a pop star who unexpectedly crosses paths with Celeste at work. It also seems to be a film very much about Los Angeles; director Lee Toland Krieger captures a sense of people coming together in the midst of a vast city, and Krieger and Jones both seem to understand how it’s possible to feel alone in the midst of a crowd. I enjoyed Celeste and Jesse Forever for what it wasn't - a comedy that makes a fetish out of “getting it together” - and for what it says about the voice Rashida Jones wants to have as a filmmaker.