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Her (2013)

Her #1

by Steve Habrat

Ever since his surreal 2009 children’s fantasy Where the Wild Things Are, indie director Spike Jonze has remained relatively low-key. In the years following that wildly popular screen adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s beloved tale, Jonze has filled his time with a few acting gigs, a skateboarding video or two, a handful of music videos, and some writing/producing duties. After four long years, Jonze finally returns as director for Her, the celebrated futuristic love story that has been gaining quite a bit of momentum this awards season. Also written by Jonze, Her is a film that is alive with vision and originality, a resonant love-story for a world that has developed an alarming addiction to the glow of their smartphones, tablets, and laptop computers. While certainly a beautiful film with a truly fascinating premise, Her, like Jonze’s last feature film, begins to drone on the viewer. The initial “wow” factor only carries it so far before it begins to grow repetitious, never really knowing where it should cut itself off. Luckily, your growing loss of electronic enchantment will be rescued by star Joaquin Phoenix, who gives an outstanding performance as the heartbroken writer who falls head over heels for his brand new operating system.

Her picks up in futuristic Los Angeles and introduces us to Theodore Twombly (played by Joaquin Phoenix), a lonely man nursing a broken heart over the recent separation from his wife, Catherine (played by Rooney Mara). By day, Theodore works as a writer for a company that composes personal letters for those who don’t quite know what to say, and by night, he sulks home to play video games or fidget around restlessly in his bed. One day, Theodore decides to purchase a new artificially intelligent operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) that is capable of interacting just like a regular human being. Impressed by the operating system’s abilities, Theodore strikes up a casual friendship with the new AI, sharing tidbits of information regarding his messy separation from Catherine. After a botched blind date with a beautiful woman (played by Olivia Wilde), Theodore finds himself romantically drawn to the operating system, which also appears to have developed romantic feelings for him. With his newfound love and the help of his close friend Amy (played by Amy Adams), Theodore begins pulling himself out of his slump, but the challenges of dating an operating system arise and put the relationship to the test.

If you’ve ever imagined what it might be like if Apple started making live action movies, Her gives you a pretty good indication of what the computer company’s type of movie might be like. Jonze fills the screen with soft pastel colors and sleek views of a futuristic Los Angeles—a squeaky clean metropolis where everyone shuffles about with tiny white earpieces stuffed in their ears and the glow of a smartphone screen reflecting off their down pointing faces. The overhead shots of the city are so crisp and clear that they would be perfect as the screensaver on your MacBook Pro with retina display. It’s all absolutely gorgeous to take in, even if it is glaringly obvious at times that this futuristic American city is actually just a shimmering Shanghai. On its own, the visual lyricism of Her consistently keeps your eyes wide—it’s a digital dream world that would have made Steve Jobs drool and storm off to his Apple boardroom to demand that his staff get to work on updating Siri. While Jonze keeps a firm grip here, his story, which I should reiterate is extremely original and inspired, is so thorough in the way it explores a relationship that it nearly ceases to fill us with wonder and instead begins to mildly drone on the viewer. It’s perfectly fine that he wanted to tell this digital romance in a convincing and personal manner, but the ups and downs of Theo and Samantha’s relationship begin to grow repetitive and exhausting, numbing us slightly to the couple’s conclusion.

Her #2

Though you may drift out a bit, star Joaquin Phoenix gives Her a strong emotional pull that yanks you back into the picture. Phoenix is a raw nerve as Theo, our sensitive and aching hero who is adrift in this digital world. He sulks from the office with his frown hidden under a mustache, seeking escape from his pain in an encompassing video game he obsesses over. When Samantha asks if he wants a pair of emails regarding his divorce read to him, he gives a quivery objection and fights back tears. When Samantha begins to pull him out of his hole of sadness, you’ll smile over his newfound delight as he dances through a bustling fair. Phoenix gives Theo such tenderness and vulnerability that you can’t help but root for this unusual romance to really make it, even if there are points where it makes you squirm from its awkwardness. Guiding Theo out of this rut is Johansson’s husky voice, which she lends so wonderfully to Samantha, the operating system that has won Theo’s heart. While we never see her, Johansson is able to convey so much emotion that you’d swear she was ready to manifest right next to our hero. As far as the supporting cast goes, Amy Adams gives another spectacular performance as Amy, Theo’s understanding best friend who is also facing heartbreak. Rooney Mara is prickly as Catherine, Theo’s childhood sweetheart who has shattered his heart into a million little pieces. Olivia Wilde rounds out the cast in a brief role as a sexy blind date who quickly sours to the sadsack Theo.

While the stunning cinematography and the candid performances are truly special, the real beauty of Her lies within the plausibility of its script. With the way that technology has been rapidly advancing over the past several years, it isn’t that far-fetched to think that operating systems could be this advanced ten to twenty years down the line. The smartphones now come equipped with personal assistants that can look up internet trivia, tell jokes, send text messages, bring up emails, and make phone calls all at your request. This story also speaks to the creativity that lies within Jonze, who wrote the script and just nabbed a Golden Globe for his work. It truly is remarkable that Hollywood gave the script a chance considering that most romantic dramas have evolved only to the point of having unhappy endings where boy doesn’t necessarily end up with girl. Overall, while the imagination, vision, and performances are all magnificent, Her could have done with a software update to clear out a few bugs. I understand that Jonze wanted to really sink his teeth into this peculiar romance and envision it from every angle possible, but there are stretches of dead space that allow the magic to seep out.

Grade: B

American Hustle (2013)

American Hustle #1

by Steve Habrat

Ever since his directorial debut in 1994, David O. Russell is a filmmaker that continues to surprise critics and audiences with the wide range of films that he produces. He’s done indie comedies (Spanking the Monkey, I Heart Huckabees), mainstream comedies (Flirting with Disaster), war thrillers (Three Kings), political comedies (Nailed), sports dramas (The Fighter), romantic comedies (Silver Linings Playbook), and now, just under a year after releasing his celebrated Silver Linings Playbook, he tackles another project that expands his intriguing body of work. Just in time for Oscar season we have American Hustle, a film that has been receiving glowing word of mouth over the past several months for its intoxicating blend of 70’s style, quirky characters, dry humor, and rich story that consistently pulls the rug out from under the viewer at every turn. With expectations at a staggering high, you start to wonder if this tale of a sleazy con man, his gorgeous partner, and a shifty FBI agent could ever live up to such praise. Yet with each passing second, American Hustle hits entertaining levels that are off the charts, and it finds Mr. Russell in full form, radiating a confidence we have yet to see from this talented filmmaker. Russell can also thank his star Christian Bale, who gives the best performance of his career, for making American Hustle such a strutting must-see.

American Hustle introduces us to Irving Rosenfeld (played by Christian Bale), a smooth-talking con man that runs a chain of Laundromats and on the side operates a seedy loan business where he takes $5,000 from desperate clients and gives them nothing in return. Life is pretty good for Irving, but it gets even better when he meets the beautiful Sydney Prosser (played by Amy Adams), who is drifting from job to job. After showing his business off to Sydney, she jumps on board and assumes the identity of Lady Edith Greensly, a British bombshell with overseas banking connections. As Irving and Sydney rob their clients blind, the two strike up a romance that is kept from Irving’s motor-mouthed housewife, Rosalyn Rosenfeld (played by Jennifer Lawrence), who paces around their home like a caged tiger. It doesn’t take long for Irving and Sydney’s operation to be thwarted by Richie DiMaso (played by Bradley Cooper), an eager FBI agent looking to make a name for himself at the bureau. Rather than locking Irving and Sydney up in jail, Richie decides to use the con artists to help him with an operation called Abscam, which would lure Carmine Polito (played by Jeremy Renner), the beloved Mayor of Camden, New Jersey, into taking a bribe. Irving and Sydney reluctantly agree to help Richie, but their plot to take down Politio takes a dangerous turn when several other high level politicians and ruthless mobsters get involved.

With so much style and humor to burn, American Hustle wouldn’t even need its winding and weaving script that finds all of its boldly drawn characters attempting to get over on each other. From the opening retro studio logos, Russell is gleefully smashing open a post-Vietnam and Watergate time capsule, which allows us to glimpse an America that has embraced earth tones, tacky oversized sunglasses, perms, bell bottoms, leisure suits, plunging dress necklines, and disco music. It’s all so loud, excessive, and in your face that it threatens to be cartoonish. It also guarantees that American Hustle is going to be a strong contender in the production design category, costume design category, and make-up and hairstyling category. While the meticulous attention to detail certainly makes the film entertaining, the sense of humor that Russell injects is an absolute wonder. The film opens with Bale’s Irving fussing with his comb over, hilariously gluing strips of hair down over a tuft of fake fuzz. It is guaranteed to have the theater doubled over in laughter, especially when Cooper’s DiMaso decides he is going to mess the eccentric masterpiece of a hairdo up. Also brilliant is the winking trip to a flashing disco club, where Adams and Cooper burn through the dance floor like fiends. It’s wildly hilarious and hot-under-the-collar sexy as they shimmy and shake their way to a dimly lit bathroom stall. American Hustle’s crown jewel of hilarity comes when Irving and Rosalyn have their very first fiery encounter with a microwave, which they continuously refer to as the “science oven.”

Amy Adams;Jennifer Lawrence

Making American Hustle even more irresistible is the A-list cast, who all seem like they are locked in a never-ending battle for the spotlight. While they are all fantastic, none come close to matching the work of the out-of-this-world Christian Bale. We’ve seen Bale immerse himself in his characters before, but none have been quite as charming and alive as Irving, the pudgy con man with the meanest comb over you have ever seen. In front of Sydney, his clients, and even DiMaso, Irving has a silver tongue that really works a room. His confidence practically burns a hole in the screen, but when he’s behind closed doors and facing the wrath of Rosalyn, he’s a fidgeting disaster that clutches at his heart and pops little white pills to calm his weak ticker. Adams is a spitfire as his redheaded partner, Sydney, who throws on a British accent and toys with DiMaso’s heart. Adams and Cooper share two specific moments that could practically set the screen ablaze. Cooper nails his role as the slimy DiMaso, the hotshot FBI agent who wears his perm like a crown. Lawrence is as sexy as ever as Irving’s restless wife Rosalyn, a bored and neglected housewife who threatens the whole operation. Then there is Renner as Polito, the optimistic Mayor who is determined to bring back Atlantic City any way he can. Rounding out the cast is Louis C.K. as Stoddard Thorsen, DiMaso’s perpetually peeved boss who can never seem to get control of his determined agent.

As if the style, humor, and fluid performances weren’t enough to make you fall in love with American Hustle, the film also boasts a firecracker of a script from Eric Warren Singer and Russell. Slightly based on true events, it dares to be unpredictable, sweet, intimate, touching, and intensely character driven as all of these characters that claim to do anything for survival try to play each other any way they can. It’s a thrill not knowing what direction it’s going to veer off in next. All the bickering and scheming builds to a witty final act that springs a double-cross rush that leaves you floating out of the theater. Overall, American Hustle finds Russell at the top of his game as a filmmaker. He is working with an airtight script, capturing brilliant performances that play phenomenally off each other, filling his frames with gorgeous set and costume design, and allowing his sharp sense of humor to fuel its soul. The end result is gold-plated entertainment that is guaranteed to retain its shine for years to come and reward with multiple viewings. By the end of the film, you will respect the hustle.

Grade: A

Man of Steel: A Spolier-Thick, Dissenting Opinion

Man of Steel 2nd Review #1

by Will Nepper

We’ll get this out of the way first: I know that Christopher Reeves is dead and I did ‘get over it.’ (Mostly.) I’m also aware this is ‘not Donner’s Superman.’ (What is?) And finally, the fact that I really enjoyed Superman Returns may render my opinion invalid in your eyes. In fact, that may’ve been enough to stop you from reading further. I can live with that.

(What I can’t live with? A “World Machine” for starters, but more on that later.)

On the positive end of the spectrum, there is a lot to like about Man of Steel. That, perhaps, is what makes the entire experience so frustrating.  The problem isn’t that it isn’t Donner’s Superman; it’s not even Superman’s Superman.

I enjoyed Kevin Costner, Diane Lane (even though, she wasn’t given much to do but beam proudly and look concerned) and almost all of the Smallville-era Kent family backstory, particularly moments where a young Clark becomes overwhelmed by his super senses in the classroom. His struggle to keep his powers a secret in the face of bullies presents some solid moments – some of the best in the Superman movie history.

Unfortunately, those moments make up about 20 percent of MoS, serve an origin story that we don’t really need and leave two hours of running time open to completely botch the rest of the job with increasingly boring battles and no real sense of peril or characterization.

I admit that I prefer my Superman movies with a bit of humor and characters that smile from time to time. (Henry Cavill smiles once or twice during the two-hour-plus epic.) But I’m willing to sacrifice all of that on the Fan Boy Alter because those aren’t Superman-story necessities. There have been plenty of “dark” story lines for the Last Son of Krypton and he can’t always maintain the boy-scout-in-blue attitude that many of his older fans (…Who has two thumbs and is an ‘older fan?’…) are accustomed to. Fair enough.

HOWEVER.

If you can’t see that this incarnation of Superman was built around the fan boy gripe that Superman Returns didn’t have enough punching in it, your brown-tinted, grit-covered Chris Nolan glasses may be blinding you.

We’ll never know (well, until we hear a DVD commentary) who’s most responsible for which of MoS’s problems, but I’m sure there’s plenty of blame to go around. The convoluted Kryptonian story components are almost certainly the fruits of Nolan’s influence. The static, unrelenting stake-free action sequences – well, those reek of Snyder’s style. For example: the fast zoom-in-zoom-out moments (to give you the POV of a flying Nikon, I guess) and the terrible pacing. (Snyder blew his wad on his remake of Dawn of the Dead as far as I’m concerned.)

Let’s scratch beneath the surface to the spoiler-y list of gripes I have with MoS and how they keep the movie from being the “Superman movie I’ve been waiting for.”

1. Lois Lane, as played by Amy Adams, looks more Lana Lang than spunky reporter and her character plays more like a History Channel “History’s Mysteries” sleuth than a “Pulitzer-prize-winning reporter.” In fact, there’s no evidence that she’s much of a reporter at all considering that she spends the entire movie tracking one story she’s been told to drop in favor of, you know, news. I’d say she’s miscast, but I don’t think Adams is the problem. Her LL is written as bland, and LL has never been bland. Adams singing scene in The Muppets was a showstopper and she was the only actor to rise above the material in the god-awful The Master. Her relationship with Superman – if we can call him that (Nobody does until the last reel and even then, only once.) –seems to have developed off-screen. I won’t say there’s a lack of chemistry between the two leads because we never get an opportunity to see for ourselves. The movie shifts back and forth in time and jumps to a new scene whenever things start to actually get interesting. To be fair, Superman Returns had some major Lois Lane problems too. (She was played by a woefully miscast Kate Bosworth and was Superman’s baby mama. Whaaaaa?!)

2. Krypton occupies waaaaay too much of MoS – even after we leave it – and this is a huge miscalculation where story is concerned. EVERYthing is explained to no substantial effect.  What’s accomplished in the early scenes on Krypton could easily be chopped down to about 5 minutes without leaving us wanting or needing more. It would kick start the flick with some action-movie pacing rather than serve as a bloated Krypton history lesson. It doesn’t help that Krypton is … well, brown – like a cross between the sets of Dune, The Neverending Story and the Dark Crystal dropped into Nolan’s Gotham City. And the flying monsters, like the one Russel Crowe’s Jor-El hops on? They only served to remind me of a similar moment in a Star Wars prequels (they blur together for me) where Obi Wan mounts a similar CGI beastie eliciting similar groans from me.

The meat of these scenes is our introduction to this movie’s Zod, which is necessary but also problematic when this particular villain’s agenda is revealed and we learn how, in some ways, he’s a more sympathetic enemy than he is pure evil. He’s a Krytonian patriot just as he was genetically engineered. That means this dye was cast without his say, making him less a big meanie than a diligent servant of his race. Kal-El, on the other hand, is the only Kryptonian capable of free will. He faces tough decisions, can weigh the pros and cons, and act accordingly. Everyone else (including bred-for-science, Jor-El) is just doing the Gattaca shuffle his or her destiny demands. This leads me to another major gripe:

3. Superman does not snap necks. He never kills unless he’s left no alternative, and he almost ALWAYS finds an alternative because he’s super smart and calculating. (How many times has he outwitted confirmed genius, Lex Luthor?) Unlike Batman, Supes is a lover, not a fighter. Where DC’s second banana (kidding, Steve-O!) (… Even though he totally is … ) is a vigilante, Superman is more in the business of being a rescuer. His priority: protecting the people of the world (and the individuals within earshot of his super hearing). When Faora (Ursa 2.0) announces that: “You will not win. For every human you save, we will kill a million more,” she nails it because in that way, the bad guys DO win. Her prediction proves correct and though Zod and Co. don’t walk away with the store, they certainly rack up what must be a substantial body count. Remember what 9-11 did to this country? Imagine where the country’s head would be under the rubble of a completely trashed Metropolis. (It’s going to take Smallville several years to rebuild as well, and forget about a late night trip to IHOP for a while.) Superman would never let that pass. He would find a way to save as many people as possible AND save the planet, because HE’S SUPERMAN!

Not to kick it all nostalgic, but remember in Superman II when the panic-stricken Superman pleads with Ursa to rethink throwing the city bus full of people? He knows that a big Metropolis showdown between four superfolk would create a lot of collateral damage, so he leads the bad guys away from the city to battle them where they’ll do less damage. (The Artic was a good choice.) Instead we’re forced to endure a battle of indestructible Gods in which all the real damage is done to the city and its residents. Instead of outsmarting the villain, Superman breaks Zod’s neck and screams.

[An aside: On the topic of collateral damage: What the fuck, Hollywood? I had this gripe with The Avengers and Star Trek Into Darkness too. Our primary characters go unharmed while millions of simple city folk are squished under demolished buildings and thrown cars. I don’t need realism. I don’t require that we dwell on these things, but it would be nice to feel like something is at stake for once. We KNOW the good guy is going to win, but at what cost? That question is never answered because we never get an inkling of suffering despite the mass destruction. Even if we could just hear an off-screen newscast reporting: “Millions dead as Metropolis comes tumbling down like a lost game of Jenga, because a battle we have nothing to do with is being waged in our city by aliens, one of whom is supposed to be the good guy despite his inability to strategize.”]

Within minutes of Zod’s snapped neck, which, it would seem, indicates Supe’s victory, we make a rare visit to The Daily Planet, which looks to be in pretty damn good condition after the battle waged there. Did city engineers start reconstruction with The Daily Planet (a PRINT publication)? Instead of, like, schools? Things look like they’re back to business as usual, though we know outside Perry White’s windows are dead bodies trapped under the rubble left by a battle between two indestructible forces. Unless we’re to believe several years pass between the two scenes, and I’m pretty sure we’re not.

4. Lazy writing. Allowing Pa Kent to be swept away by a tornado is laughably lazy writing and makes no goddamned sense besides.  Seriously, I laughed. It was the ONE TIME in his young life that Clark could have used his powers without it being detected by others. (–Even though Papa Costner forbids him, I bet Pa would be rethinking that stupid move as he free falls through the roof of a Smallville hardware store when the tornado eventually drops him.) But he let’s Dad’s raised hand force him back under the overpass? Maybe Clark just didn’t love him enough. I’d like to think that Ma, would immediately have slapped the shit out of Clark after that scene. “What the fuck?! He was your dad, dumbass!”

In Superman: The Movie, it’s important and pivotal when the elder Kent dies of a heart attack because “even with all of these powers, I still couldn’t save him.” Teachable lesson there, Kal – and one that will inform many of your future decisions as a protector of “truth, justice and the American way.” (In the Donner version anyway.)

Also, Snyder wants us to believe that Kal kills Zod because he had no choice! Zod was gonna heat-vision that family to death!

So, only then he finds the strength to do effective bodily harm to Zod? This after they’ve been having an aerial fistfight in which they sustain virtually no damage? Again: lazy writing that caters to the demand for more punching!  Lazy writing made worse by the fact that Zod just made the case that he’s protecting what he was genetically engineered to protect. That’s not evil enough for a main villain. It’s pitiable. He’s not sadistic or cruel so much as he’s trying to maintain what he sees as “the greater good” even if he’s crazy, angry and misguided. But think about it: If Earth people had to relocate to another populated planet, we’d totally take over and think nothing of dropping a Target and Starbucks smack dab in the center of the alien planet’s red-sun-worshipping sacred ground.

5. Kryptonian jargon. It’s confusing, useless and poorly named. The only thing sillier than Kevin Costner being whisked away like Dorothy is all of the jargony, macguffiny, mumbo jumbo about things like a “codex” and (God help me) a “world engine.” I get that the villains are up to terraforming Earth into Krypton II, but did we need knowledge of Kryptonian science to make this effective? (I’m not saying bring back the crystals, but didn’t they do the job without us having to know exactly what they were doing?) Also did we need over-explanation of the House-of-El family crest? I mean, it works, but that was also done in Superman: The Movie – without the need for dialogue exposition I might add. Can’t we, the audience, sort that shit out for ourselves?

While they’re at it, why not explain why Kryptonians speak English? And have “military generals” that say things like: “Where did you train? –on a farm?!” Because it’s unnecessary. Like Star Wars prequel politics, we stop paying attention to what it all means halfway through the movie because we don’t care. A full season of Battlestar Galactica had less in-your-face fiction-based science.

6. Important elements left out. Most disappointing – and fatal, I think, to MoS’s potential acceptance by his *ahem* older fans – is what’s missing. I’m guessing a lot of this is to stretch the origin story even further into the inevitable sequel, by waiting to introduce REPORTER, Clark Kent, as a coda before the credits. For all the bitching fans seem to do about superhero movies being oversaturated with origin stories, this makes no sense. (It’s the ol’ Prometheus switcheroo, where we know there will be another movie or why else put Guy Pierce under all of that terrible old man makeup?) Without Clark Kent, the intrepid, mild-mannered reporter for the Daily Planet, there’s no signature Superman transformation to get a kid’s heart racing. It also means no real fun with glasses, double identities and the balancing act required to keep reporter and hero separate entities in the eyes of the public and, most importantly, Lois Lane.

Does NO ONE else have a problem with the fact that, throughout most of the movie, Lois is fully aware that Clark Kent and Kal-El are one and the same? It’s one of the primary tropes of the Superman mythos and it’s snuffed out, and what’s worse: for no discernible reason. (Will he be giving her one of those Superman II-style Forget Me Now kisses to reboot her memory later?) Lois seems to exist solely to be rescued by Superman, awkwardly bridge scenes and provide a quasi-romantic moment in the last act so that our two primaries can share a head-scratching kiss that is completely unearned by the story’s wobbly narrative.

Finally, a word about the inexplicably maligned Superman Returns:

What’s everyone’s beef with it? Brandon Routh’s performance was spot-on and the character, well developed. Yes, it used Donner’s movies as a jumping off point but I was glad. It wasn’t a sequel so much as it existed in the same universe. Donner directed most of Superman II before the Salkinds replaced him, mid-shoot, with British director, Richard Lester, who admitted to not giving a shit about Superman and who specializes in comedy.

Snyder and Nolan don’t seem to give much of a shit about Superman either. Thus, we get a stoic, humorless hero and a soulless movie that seems hell-bent on being different for difference-sake. “Let’s make Perry White … BLACK! Let’s modify the costume almost completely! And let’s make the final battle … Well, can we go bigger than The Avengers? Let’s try! … And don’t forget! MORE PUNCHING!

MoS’s flying sequences are the most well rendered of any Superman movie – I’ll give it that. And Cavill looks great in the cape (and there’s less wrong with his performance than there is with the writing of the character), but there’s more to Superman than that. And Team MoS doesn’t seem to understand or care. They just want to out-action every Superman movie that came before and it’s obviously priority one.

I think the lesson to be learned here is an easy one. Superman is a tough hero to bring to the big screen, now more than ever. Different times require different movie heroes. (It’s why post-Last Crusade Indiana Jones movies can’t be done right. It’s why the return of Star Wars is/was a lost cause. And there’s a reason Bill Murray is telling Dan Akroyd to fuck off with his Ghostbusters III dream.) Someone got Superman right once.  For my money, SR came close for many pre-millennial fans. (And critics. Note the 75% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes compared to MoS’s “rotten” 57% … but who pays attention to critics? … oh … wait. Nevermind.)  MoS seems to be pleasing younger audiences with the spectacle of its relentless battle scenes, spaceships (Spaceships?!), mass destruction and thin characterization. I don’t blame them though because that’s consistent with the movie heroes they’ve grown up with. (See: Transformers) Perhaps it’s time to just accept facts: No one is ever going to make a modern Superman movie that works for everyone. I’m of the belief it just can’t be done and I hope to God people stop trying. (Not likely.)

As for a Justice League movie? Just say no.

Grade: C

Man of Steel (2013)

Man of Steel #1

by Steve Habrat

With Christopher Nolan making the decision to bring his Batman trilogy to an apocalyptic close and 2011s The Green Lantern bombing horribly at the box office, DC Comics has been forced to turn to their last A-list hero in a final attempt to hang with comic book juggernaut Marvel Studios. Now we have Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, a gritty and epic reboot that is the Superman film we deserved way back in 2006. DC Comics made a grave mistake when they allowed Bryan Singer to craft another sequel to Christopher Reeve’s Superman films of the late 70s and 80s, a flub that has actually ended up hurting Snyder’s breathtaking reboot of the big blue boy scout. Man of Steel has taken quite a bit of negative criticism for its decent into massive action set pieces in the final stretch of its runtime, something that Singer wasn’t as eager to do in his wandering effort. The fact is that Man of Steel is seven years too late and it is entering a market that has been saturated by Marvel Studios. If this film would have been released in 2006, I guarantee it would have been met with as much praise as 2005s Batman Begins. That being said, Man of Steel is still a powerful entry into the superhero genre, a film that is perfectly grand for a true-blue do-gooder. It completely rejects the sunny optimism of the previous Superman entries and embraces a heavy heart of darkness that many fans may not be quick to warm to. In my opinion, it is just what the legendary superhero needed.

Man of Steel begins on the planet Krypton, with the wise scientist Jor-El (played by Russell Crowe) and his wife, Lara (played by Ayelet Zurer), giving birth to a baby boy they name Kal-El. With the planet of Krypton doomed to destruction, Jor-El and Lara send their son off to Earth, where he will have a chance for a survival. Meanwhile, General Zod (played by Michael Shannon), the military leader of Krypton, attempts to take over the planet with a handful of loyal followers including the vicious Faora (played by Antje Traue). Zod’s attempt to overthrow Krypton’s counsel is prevented and as punishment, he and his followers are banished to the Phantom Zone. Thirty-three years later, Clark Kent (played by Henry Cavill) is a mysterious drifter with superhuman abilities. He largely remains in the shadows, working odd jobs and occasionally saving people from horrific accidents. Word gets out about a mysterious object found in the ice in the Artic, which catches the attention of Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Lois Lane (played by Amy Adams). Lois sets out to do a piece on the mysterious object, but as she snoops around the dig, she comes face to face with Clark, who has also taken an interest in the object. After Lois is injured, Clark narrowly saves her life and then disappears. Shaken by what she has seen, she begins digging into rumors about a drifter who always seems to be in the right place at the right time. Clark, meanwhile, uncovers secrets about where he came from and learns about his superhuman abilities.

Almost instantly, Snyder, screenwriter David S. Goyer, and producer Christopher Nolan set their vision of Superman apart from the previous attempts through a gritty and emotionally riveting stage setter on the crumbling planet of Krypton. Gone is Donner’s neon crystal environment and in its place is a gunmetal gray landscape full of zippy spaceships and roaring and soaring alien beasts. There is plenty of exposition about Krypton and it is spiced up through bone-snapping fistfights and blaring explosions that dwarf anything we saw in Superman Returns. While this sequence ends in tragedy, there is still plenty of optimism from Crowe’s Jor-El, who is convinced that Kal-El will be a god to the people of Earth. When Snyder shifts clumsily to Earth, Nolan’s gloomy cinematic fingerprints begin to emerge. The filmmakers take their time working up to Superman’s big reveal, spinning a soulful tale of a man who is completely at odds with his abilities. To make things worse on the guy, he is entering a post-9/11 world that trembles in fear over the very idea of a man that can glide over the clouds. Despite numerous attempts to convince us that he means no harm, he is still met with suspicious eyes from the jumpy U.S. government.

Man of Steel #2

The most pivotal part of Man of Steel is Henry Cavill’s performance as Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman. Cavill is absolutely excellent as an outcast who has been warned not to reveal his superhuman abilities to the world. He wants to help any way he can but the fear of rejection hangs heavy over his head. Cavill uses his eyes to convey this constant vulnerability and confusion, looking to the stars and his earthly father, Jonathan Kent (played by Kevin Costner), for guidance. While the new vulnerability is great, wait until you get a load of him in a fight. There is a surging intensity and almost a pulsing anger buried deep within his character that was completely unexpected. When Cavill is finally allowed to stop brooding, it is easy to see why he was chosen for the role. He is just bursting with all-American charm and he certainly is a warm figure of hope, even if he isn’t relegated to saving a kitten from a tree or helping an old lady across a busy Metropolis street. No, this Superman has bigger fish to fry when Shannon’s General Zod comes calling. We all know that Shannon can go fully crazy when he wants, and he certainly does get a little nuts with General Zod, but there is a measured insanity to his performance. He is a man driven by the love of his planet and he will stop at nothing to carry out his mission.

Then we have Amy Adams as the no-nonsense Lois Lane, who early on proves that she can hang tough in a room full of guys. Her strength and determination is certainly well played, but near the end of the film, her character is slowly shifted to damsel in distress, which was a bit disappointing. There was also a lack of build up in her romance with Supes, which sort of felt stuffed in there because it had to be. They share plenty of scenes but that spark just didn’t seem to be there. As far as Kevin Costner goes, he shines as Jonathan Kent, Clark’s adoptive father who constantly warns Clark against revealing his powers to the world. He shares a scene with the teen that is guaranteed to send chills down your spine. Russell Crowe is strong and sturdy as Jor-El, Clark’s biological father who believes that his son will be the Christ-like savior that Earth needs. Laurence Fishburne shows promise as the stern Daily Planet editor Perry White, a small role but one that I feel will be elaborated on in future installments. Diane Lane is affectionate and understanding as Martha Kent, who has to walk and talk a terrified Clark through his emerging abilities. Antje Traue is wickedly evil as Zod’s right hand woman Faora, who snarls threats like, “for every one you save, we’ll kill a million more.” Now THAT is a threat if I’ve ever heard one.

When Man of Steel finally ditches all the character building, the film dives into a climatic battle that is fittingly colossal for Superman. There is an adrenaline pumping battle in the streets of Smallville and the end man-a-mano between General Zod and Superman in the streets of Metropolis laughs at every superhero finale that has come before it. As far as criticisms go, there are a few plot holes that are difficult to ignore and Clark’s education about his home planet and abilities from a holographic Jor-El seems a bit brushed over. There are also a few lines of dialogue that will make you giggle and not in a good way. I should also mention that Snyder bashes us over the head with the Christ references, something that Singer was also guilty of. In case you don’t see the similarities between Jesus Christ and Superman, wait for the scene that finds Clark Kent wandering into a church and confiding in a nervous priest. Overall, while it isn’t perfect, Man of Steel certainly sets the stage for a refreshed Superman franchise for our dark times. It has a unique hand-held visual style and features a pounding score that only Hans Zimmer could provide. Snyder, Goyer, and Nolan successfully manage to wash away the sour taste that Singer left in our mouths and leave us wanting more from the hero that stands for truth, justice, and the American way.

Grade: B+

The Master (2012)

by Craig Thomas

Let’s be clear. This is not a film about Scientology. Joaquin Phoenix does not play a troubled Second World War veteran who starts a long relationship with Scientology after a chance encounter with L. Ron Hubbard. And Philip Seymour Hoffman does not play L. Ron Hubbard. With that out of the way let me explain a bit about this film.

Joaquin Phoenix plays a troubled Second World War veteran (Freddie Quell) who, after a chance encounter with author and leader of the burgeoning religious cult The Cause, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who has all sorts of beliefs about past lives and trapped souls and curing leukemia through “anti-hypnosis” (which, as is pointed out, seems an awful lot like hypnosis). He is also a terrible writer, with an uncanny ability to “discover” truths about the very essence of existence.

And that makes it sound far more exciting than it actually is.

Seriously.

Almost nothing of note happens in the entire film. No-one changes, no-one grows or learns anything. It’s the story of two troubled men who are just as troubled at the end as at the beginning, which is not surprising as nothing really happens to either of them. One is protected from the world by moonshine, the other by a fawning, downtrodden following. But perhaps that is the point. If so, I struggle to understand why it took nearly two and a half hours to say so. Indeed, it takes a good half hour or so before Dodd even appears, all of which is spent watching Freddie Quell running around being troubled.

At this point I should point out that I am not Armond White. I do not believe that the collected works of Paul W. S. Anderson (including the entire Resident Evil series and two AvP films) have more to offer to the medium of film than Paul Thomas Anderson. In fact, I find the work of the former to be trash and found There Will Be Blood to be a fine film, in the best sense. I was looking forward to this.

So it brings me no pleasure to write such a scathing review. I went with two friends, both of whom also hated it. In fact, I was the most forgiving, which I suspect, was due to having been the only one of us to suffer through The Tree of Life in its entirety. So if you liked that, then you will probably love this.

Let’s try to find some positives.

First of all, it is well put together, with some nice sequences and tracking shots. It had a nice gloss and looked authentically like the 1950s (or at least, what I imagine the 1950s to have looked like). It has a couple of beautiful shots of the sea and there is a lovely setup in a prison sequence.

Then there was the acting. Joaquin Phoenix puts in a great physical performance playing a troubled veteran with a number of war wounds, both physical and psychological. However, for a significant portion of the film I could not see the character as much more than Phoenix acting (what is commonly known in the industry as Ben Affleck Syndrome), even if it was good acting. As the film progressed I became less conscious of this, which may have been little more than indifference caused by increasing levels of boredom watching him walk back and fore across a room for 15 minutes, touching the wall, then touching the window.

Stealing every scene he was in and by far the best thing about this film was the performance of Philip Seymour Hoffman as cult leader, Dodd. He was outstanding in every scene and certainly deserves an Oscar nomination, at least. Personally, I would put him in the Best Actor category, as opposed to Best Supporting Actor, though there might be some debate about that. I’d even go so far as to say a second statuette for the hugely talented actor would be well deserved. I also wouldn’t be surprised if Phoenix got a nomination as well, though I am not entirely convinced by his performance.

Another person who should definitely get a nod (this time in the Best Supporting Actress category), and who was by far the biggest (pleasant) surprise of the film was Amy Adams playing Dodd’s long-struggling, yet ideologically committed and articulate wife, Peggy. Having seen her in little more than films for children (Enchanted) and those with large amounts of black humour (Sunshine Cleaning) I was surprised to see her take on such a heavy role and even more so when she delivered a pitch-perfect performance. Though she has very much on the periphery, she has a number of key scenes in which she has an oppertunity to do something and in each she matches Hoffman. A win for her would not be undeserved.

Well, that’s quite enough of that.

There has been a lot of good things said about this film (as opposed specifically for the actors) and for the life of me I can’t see why. I attribute part of this to the cult that surrounds Paul Thomas Anderson, as it does with most famous and highly talented film-makers. People want to like it so talk it up. Another reason might be the similarities with Scientology (which it is definitely not about), but if anything this simply detracts from the film itself and adds to the mundane nature of the thing. If it’s anything else, I can’t see it. But perhaps that is the point, perhaps I just don’t “get it”. But I think I did, just as I’m pretty sure I “got” The Tree of Life.

I just didn’t like it.

I never walk out of films, and I didn’t walk out of this one, but the thought seriously crossed my mind, which was one of the first moments I realized I really didn’t like it, despite my best efforts to do so. I also found myself wishing that it was a documentary on Scientology, which would have been far more interesting.

In the end, this films fails to satisfy. It is not a exposé of Scientology (for legal reasons as much as anything else), nor is a particularly good film, though it was clearly made by a good film-maker. By the end I didn’t learn anything about anything, nor did I feel anything other than relief it was all over.

Yet technically, it was well made and some of the performances (particularly Hoffman and Adams) were terrific. I can only imagine how powerful their performances would have been, had this been a better (or even a good) film. As it is, I would struggle to recommend watching it for their performances alone because everything else is just so dull.

This is a hard film to rate, but in the end I think everything balances itself out, just about.

Grade: C

The Muppets (2011)

by Steve Habrat

I’m going to remember 2011 as the year that retro dominated at the movies. We have seen multiple releases throughout the year that have embraced a throwback aesthetic, ones that were evocative and nostalgic. They were all quite good too. We’ve had the candy-colored madcap The Green Hornet, 80’s horror nod Insidious, the Goonies/E.T. mash up Super 8, the dreamy pulp and Raider’s of the Lost Ark tribute Captain America, the ultra violent 80’s crime/actioner Drive, the arty silent film wonder The Artist, and we will soon see another Raider’s valentine when The Adventures of Tintin hits theaters. Many have been direct nods to the heyday of special effects and when escapism really dominated. In the late 70’s, Jim Henson’s Muppets took over television and went on to rally a group of loyal fans that have supported them through the years. After a long hiatus and being largely forgotten by pop culture, gargantuan funny guy Jason Segel, who is also said to be a huge fan of the felt critters, penned a fresh new screenplay along with Nicholas Stoller, wrangled director James Bobin and together they have delivered a winning piece of family entertainment that attempts to rally a new generation of fans while also making the adults who so enthusiastically watched their sketch-comedy mischief way back when inebriated with nostalgia of their youth. The Muppets is retro without being retro. It’s hilariously self-aware and willing to crack jokes on their absence. This world isn’t meant for the optimistic band of creatures ranging from the ringleader Kermit the Frog all the way to Sam the Eagle. And trust me, every Muppet you can think of pops up at least once. The movie almost isn’t big enough to contain them all. The best part of all of this is that The Muppets keeps things unadorned, making it even easier to love them.

The Muppets kicks off with the knee-slapping introduction of their newest member, Walter, a happy-go-lucky little puppet that is best buddies with his human brother Gary. The young Gary and Walter live in the perfect community of Smalltown, USA, and they both sit in their matching stripped pajamas and grin over The Muppet Show. Walter becomes a massive fan of Kermit and company, and as life gets tougher for the little Walter, he finds comfort in The Muppet Show. The film speeds forward to present day where the adult Gary (Played by Jason Segel) and Walter still live in Smalltown and are now shacking up together. They are still best buds and still do everything together, even hilarious musical numbers. We also learn that Gary is dating Mary (Played by Amy Adams) and they have been together for ten years. Gary plans a trip to Los Angles in celebration of their anniversary and he invites Walter to tag along to see the Muppet Theater. Mary is less than enthused but she understands how important Walter is to Gary and Gary to Walter. Once they arrive to Los Angles, Walter discovers that the world has left the Muppets behind and moved on. Their theater and studio lie in ruin and there is a plot by an evil oilman named Tex Richman (Played by Chris Cooper) to destroy what is left of their studios in an attempt to drill for oil. Horrified, Walter pleas with Gary and Mary to help him reunite the Muppet gang and help save the Muppet Theater.

It’s easy for us to wave off The Muppets and call it square. It features quirky puppets rather than fancy CGI creatures and, yes, it does seem a bit dated. It’s also heavy with musical numbers, which is also the furthest thing from hip. Yet that is what makes this film so irresistible. It’s simple and old fashioned, with a whole slew of cameos from big Hollywood names. Get ready to double over when Modern Family’s Rico Rodriguez shows up and inquisitively asks Kermit if he’s one of the Ninja Turtles. Wait until you see Kermit’s reaction. Oh, and Neil Patrick Harris turns up too to deliver a real zinger. Truth be told, I’ve always been intrigued by the Muppets and how they convey so much emotion. When Kermit is sad, we can see it in his plastic peepers. It does fill you with a sense of wonder. It helps that the puppet work is punctilious and detailed. And yet this film is content with being square and a bit dated. In fact it is delighted by the very implication of it. It gives it fuel to crack joke after joke and believe me, the jokes come fast and furious. It’s a nice balance to Pixar’s films and the bizarre offerings like Alvin and the Chipmunks, where real actors interact with annoying CGI animals (Hollywood is forcing the annoying Chipmunks on audiences AGAIN! They showed the trailer before this film. I guess with every good thing, there has to be a bad.). With The Muppets, at least there is something palpable for the actors to work with.

The actors here all do a fine job playing old fashioned. Segel brings a gee-whiz energy with him and he really seems to be genuinely in awe at what is going on around him. It helps that he has a heart for this sort of thing. Adams steals the shows as Mary, as she just radiates girl-next-door charm. She looks like she stepped out of the 1950’s. Parks and Recreation’s Rashida Jones turns up as a straight-shooting television executive named Veronica who, in the words of Fozzie Bear, could shoot “a little more curvy”. Cooper’s oilman Tex Richman also provides some big laughs, especially his love of maniacal laughter. He also steals the show with a musical number so bold, I didn’t laugh until after it ended and I could register what had just happened.

The Muppets does have a handful of flaws that knocks it down a letter grade. The director handles some of that cameos carelessly, some are so brief; blink and you may miss them. There are some that shine (Emily Blunt turns up in a nod to The Devil Wears Prada) and some that should have been developed better (Sarah Silverman’s wasted potential as a diner hostess). Some of the Muppets themselves could have used a bit more screen time, but the film desperately tries to fit every single one of them into the film that it is almost overload. I was left wishing for more of daredevil Gonzo and Sam the Eagle. Walter ends up getting lost in the shuffle for about a half hour and it’s a shame because you really do fall in love with him. Every once and a while, it feels slightly unfocused, like a bunch of kids in a candy store.

Despite some minor hiccups, this is one of the best family films of the year. One that is not like Chinese water torture for adults and delivers slapstick laughs for children. I applaud Segel for making retro old-fashioned feel new again and I would gladly go back to the theater to experience all of this again. The film succeeds as a musical, with several numbers that really pop, the best one being shared by Mary and Miss Piggy. The Muppets finds itself on the retro list of 2011, one of the films where everything just clicks and it takes you back. Two of the people I saw it with were fans of the show when it was on and it left them beaming. My generation missed Kermit and Miss Piggy, but it still had me in a good mood after we left the theater. This film isn’t rocket science, but then again, it doesn’t need to be. It left me feeling all warm and felty inside. Who can argue with that?!

Grade: B+

Must-See Holiday Season Movie…GO!

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