Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Smooth as a Con Artist

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              Christian Bale squints at himself in the mirror, pasting a lump of hair onto his bare scalp with gel. We watch for what feels like five minutes as he tries to smooth it out, his dark eyebrows furrowed in concentration, a pair of rose-tinted glasses perched on his nose, in a desperate, ultimately futile attempt to hide his hideous combover. It’s a brilliant beginning to a movie obsessed with visual details. Throughout the whole thing, there’s not a single tie, earring, shade, painting or hair out of place; they all seem to meld together in an intoxicating collage of ‘70s euphoria, the bright, faintly oily cinematography courtesy of Linus Sandgren juxtaposed with a feverish, pitch-perfect dreamscape of a soundtrack that features artists as diverse as Duke Ellington and the Bee Gees.

              The plot that unfolds isn’t particularly revelatory – it’s basically a heist flick meets an Informant!-style conspiracy comedy with a dash of romance sprinkled in. But as he did with his previous two outings (underdog sports drama The Fighter and mental illness rom-com Silver Linings Playbook), newly Oscar-friendly director David O. Russell takes a traditional narrative and instills it with his own flair, his sense of bubbling energy and chaos that simmers just beneath the surface, turning it into something that feels acutely personal and distinctive. Much like the Coen brothers, he has demonstrated a remarkable ability to bounce between a variety of genres without losing touch with his unique voice. Even though his recent movies have toned down much of the idiosyncratic absurdity that defined his early work, they’re still undeniably his. American Hustle proves to be a fine showcase for Russell’s strengths, from his keen ear for the rhythm of speech and conversation (shown in the film’s witty yet naturalistic dialogue, which zips and pops off the screen like firecrackers) to his affection for the nuances of human eccentricity.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Excesses of 'Wall Street'

StarGazer

***SPOILER ALERT!***



        “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.” Those oft-misquoted and misunderstood words were immortalized by Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, Oliver Stone’s classic indictment of American capitalism and avarice. Twenty-six years later, it’s remarkable how relevant they still seem, how little has changed from those ‘80s heydays of power brokers and custom-suited yuppies. Joining a recent rash of movies concerned with financial issues and the economy, Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street starts smack-dab in 1987 (coincidentally the year Stone’s film was originally released) and traces the crime-fueled and hijinks-filled stockbroking career of Jordan Belfort. It immerses audiences in the more-is-everything, morally bankrupt culture of Wall Street executives with a crazed eagerness, turning into a three-hour-long rollercoaster that somehow teeters dangerously close to fetishizing their sex, drugs and money-obsessed lifestyle while still acting as a mostly effective critique of the society that makes that lifestyle possible.

        Responsible for swindling millions of dollars out of stock buyers through his firm Stratton Oakmont, Jordan Belfort is a fascinatingly despicable individual, at least as portrayed by Scorsese and a delightfully game Leonardo DiCaprio. While there’s an argument to be made over whether this is his absolute best performance (I’m personally still partial toward Revolutionary Road), DiCaprio has certainly never been more balls-to-the-wall fearless. Although he’ll never be mistaken for an effortless actor, always committing to each role with almost exhausting intensity, the Titanic star has lately developed a looser, more relaxed onscreen demeanor, and between Inception, Django Unchained, The Great Gatsby and Wolf, he finally seems ready to accept his status as a movie star, instead of still striving to be a more mysterious, artsy thespian a la Daniel Day-Lewis. He’s magnetic here, radiating charisma whether he’s explaining the art of selling fraudulent stocks or smoking crack behind a diner with an equally unselfconscious Jonah Hill. Constantly jittery and manic due to his character’s heavy drug habits, DiCaprio pulls off everything Scorsese throws at him with aplomb; at various points, he blows cocaine off a hooker’s butt, mimes anal sex after persuading a wealthy customer to buy penny stock, has real sex involving a candle, and flops like a worm possessed by seizures from a pay phone to his extravagant sports car when a particularly powerful drug renders him unable to stand or walk. Belfort never becomes even mildly sympathetic, but thanks to DiCaprio’s gutsy performance and dominating screen presence, you can understand why people are so entranced by him.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

A Capitalist Dressed in Revolutionary's Clothing

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              In a year of blockbusters preoccupied with relentless action and testosterone, Catching Fire feels like a breath of fresh air – and not just because its protagonist is female. It takes at least half the movie’s hefty running time for something resembling a real action scene to arrive. Director Francis Lawrence and screenwriters Simon Beaufoy and Michael deBruyn actually care about developing a plot that makes sense and put genuine effort into (re)establishing the characters and their world, which is really the bare minimum of good storytelling but suddenly seems like a luxury. Although Katniss Everdeen, the heroine, knows how to use a bow and arrow, she relies on more than physical prowess to overcome adversity, as she’s forced to navigate the treacherous waters of politics and fame, occasionally at the expense of her own morals; especially as portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence with her signature blend of mercurial brashness and matter-of-fact poise, she’s more complex than your usual feisty, rebellious, faux-feminist heroine (see: Merida from Brave).

              As it turns out, Lawrence is an almost uncanny fit for the role of Katniss (I say “almost” because there’s still the whole white-washing issue, which I won’t get into here). Since appearing on Hollywood’s radar with the critically acclaimed 2010 indie Winter’s Bone, the Kentucky-born actress has evolved into a legitimate superstar, becoming the youngest person ever to receive two Best Actress Oscar nominations, joining two major franchises and basically dominating the Internet, thanks to her charming interviews and talk show appearances. She’s the perfect celebrity: gregarious and outspoken yet modest and self-aware, her every action and sentence seemingly free of any affectation. It’s hard not to draw parallels between Lawrence and Katniss, from the constant pressure they face to maintain their carefully manufactured personas and indulge a fickle, judgmental public to the endless media attention devoted to their physical appearances and private lives. Just as Katniss symbolizes hope for the budding rebellion in Panem, Lawrence has come to epitomize female empowerment for a generation of young women. It’s one instance where real-life knowledge enhances fiction, imbuing Katniss’s situation with an added layer of resonance and helping Lawrence accomplish a rare, often under-appreciated feat: she makes heroism compelling.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

To All the Dreamers Out There, This Song Is For You

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        Not much of anything happens in Inside Llewyn Davis. Perpetually bundled up in a corduroy blazer, a wool gray scarf and ragged fingerless gloves, the scruffy, curly-haired title character wanders through the streets of early 1960s Greenwich Village with a bulky guitar case in one hand and a restless orange cat cradled in the other. He mostly seems to spend his days trudging from door to door in search of an inevitably low-paying gig or a friend willing to let him crash on their couch for a day or two. I’m not sure he cracks a smile even once during the movie. It’s not really a spoiler to say that, in defiance of the traditional Hollywood narrative arc, Llewyn never finds his breakout moment; at the end, he’s quite literally in the same place he was when the film started. 

        This doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement for the Coen brothers’ new flick, and on the surface, the movie seems slight, forgettable, but in fact, the straight-faced, deliberately monotonous attitude it adopts toward its subjects gives the whole thing a distinctive allure not suggested by the threadbare plot. It’s that rare period piece that shows no nostalgia for the era it’s depicting. Gone are the usual scenes of carefree, substance-assisted revelry, the rose-tinted characterizations of ‘60s counterculture, and the youthful idealism and excitement often associated with that tumultuous decade. Instead, working with a low-key minimalism at odds with the heightened quirkiness that typifies even their more serious work, the Coens draw audiences into the desperate tedium of Llewyn’s everyday life with the detached precision of documentarians, showing the difficulties he faces without romanticizing or wallowing in his poverty. The stubbornly drab clothing and some gorgeous cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel so saturated of color the film occasionally looks like it was shot in black and white reinforce the somber atmosphere. Shots of the murky Gaslight Café where the characters frequently perform, of almost impossibly narrow hallways and roads that stretch straight toward some unseen point beyond a flat horizon create a sense of claustrophobia, reflecting how trapped Llewyn feels in an inescapable cycle of failure that’s partly of his own making.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Review: That's Better

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Peter Jackson needs an editor. According to the sacred text that is Wikipedia, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug was edited by Jabez Olssen, who previously worked with Jackson on The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, King Kong, The Lovely Bones and the first installment of the Hobbit trilogy, so maybe that familiarity is part of the problem. Either way, it’s not exactly controversial to point out that The Desolation of Smaug is way too effing long. When calculated, the average length of this year’s ten blockbusters (DoS, Iron Man 3, Star Trek into Darkness, Man of Steel, Fast and Furious 6, Pacific Rim, Elysium, Ender’s Game, Thor: The Dark World and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) comes out to 131 minutes. At a whopping 161 minutes, The Desolation of Smaug is by far the longest of the bunch – a full 15 minutes longer than its closest competitor, Catching Fire.

The funny thing is that (again, according to Wikipedia) it’s also 17 minutes shorter than The Fellowship of the Ring, the shortest entry in its series, but I didn’t feel nearly as drained after AMC’s Lord of the Rings marathon last December – the extended editions, no less – as I did when the credits rolled for Desolation of Smaug. Long story short, the problem isn’t the running time itself so much as what the filmmaker does with that time. No matter how much extra material you try to tack on, The Hobbit simply doesn’t have as much substance as The Lord of the Rings; there’s no way you can stretch a single 300-page children’s book out into three almost-three-hour movies without them feeling bloated. That’s not to say I don’t understand the temptation. After all, once you’ve seen Lord of the Rings come to vivid, awe-inspiring life onscreen, The Hobbit seems rather unimpressive and trivial, and all writers know what it’s like to grow too attached to their work to sacrifice any of it (not that that stopped them from cutting Tauriel’s backstory). But you can’t help but wonder what The Hobbit would be like if Jackson and co. had stuck with their original plan of just splitting it into two parts. The plot would’ve been more streamlined, with perhaps less portentous foreboding and needless set-up; the narrative arcs would be more distinct; and the action scenes would sustain their momentum the whole way through instead of starting with a burst of electricity and petering out toward the finish line, as though Jackson has forgotten how to end a battle since he completed The Return of the King.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, I can say something that might seem totally out-of-left-field: I liked The Desolation of Smaug. Not in a pretentious, backhanded “oh, it’s better than the first one” kind of way, though at least for me, it was. I genuinely enjoyed it. To be fair, it started out rather slow, but by the half-hour mark, when the elves were introduced and something resembling an actual plot began to form, I found myself becoming engrossed in this fantasy world and the characters in a way that never happened with its predecessor.

I liked the sense of humor, which was goofy but subtler than in Unexpected Journey (if Legolas’s reaction to seeing a picture of Gloin’s son doesn’t make you crack a smile… I have nothing to say to you). I liked the barrel set piece, which had a sense of fun inventiveness that managed to keep the child inside me amused, and on the whole, the action was a definite improvement over the generic sequences in the first Hobbit movie, even though the climax in particular seemed to go on forever. I liked how it emphasized the distinction between the Mirkwood elves and those featured in The Lord of the Rings and how the filmmakers even superficially delved into the politics of Laketown, a place unlike the majestic or picturesque places we usually see in Middle-Earth (I suppose most likely, none of that appeals to anyone who isn’t a hardcore fantasy fan and couldn’t care less about world-building, but whatever, that’s their loss). I liked Evangeline Lilly’s Tauriel so much that I didn’t even mind the awkward love triangle. Most of all, I liked Benedict Cumberbatch’s Smaug, an awesome sight to behold (especially on IMAX), so well-realized by WETA Workshop that you can feel the texture of his scales, and the menacing villain so sorely missed in Unexpected Journey (Gollum doesn’t count, since he only appeared for about ten minutes of the movie).

                At the end of the day, it’s pointless to compare The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings. The two series are on completely different levels (though not quite as drastic as the leap down from the original Star Wars movies to the prequels because The Hobbit is at least mildly entertaining), and it’s not hard to imagine that Jackson is less than fully committed to his current trilogy since he signed on for directorial duties at pretty much the last minute, after MGM’s financial troubles forced Guillermo Del Toro to leave (Del Toro retained a screenwriting credit for both The Unexpected Journey and Desolation of Smaug). But as a detailed, intriguing expansion of the Middle-Earth universe and a loving ode to fans, I could not wish for more. I look forward to seeing how this journey ends.











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Monday, December 16, 2013

Walter Mitty Wanders Aimlessly through Postcard-Pretty Landscapes

StarGazer

***SPOILER ALERT!***



          When stripped down to its bare bones, Ben Stiller’s adaptation of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is essentially a modernized, New York-set The Wizard of Oz. An utterly unremarkable man stuck in a drab, dead-end life dreams of something more only to be suddenly swept off to some faraway, exotic land on an adventure of wonder and self-discovery. Loosely based on James Thurber’s classic short story, Walter Mitty abandons the central concept of a man who drifts off into daydreams of an exciting life, often at inconvenient times, fairly early on, instead diving headlong into a globe-crossing trek as the title character, a negative developer for Life, goes off in search of an elusive photojournalist and the missing photo destined to grace to cover of the magazine’s next – and last – issue. Set at a time of extreme upheaval for the news world, the movie is preoccupied with the transition from print to digital, pining for what it sees as the comforting authenticity of the past even as it perhaps unintentionally yet eagerly embraces the slick technological advancements promised by the future. It’s this uncertainty, a pervasive inability to decide exactly what it wants to be, that prevents the film from truly working and resonating the way it so clearly wants to.

        Despite the presence of Stiller in the director’s chair and the lead role and a cast that also includes Kristen Wiig, an obnoxious and horrendously bearded Adam Scott, Patton Oswalt and Kathryn Hahn, Walter Mitty is decidedly not a comedy. The film adopts a light, upbeat tone, and there are several moments scattered throughout that aim for laughs with mixed success, but there’s an underlying pensiveness to the proceedings that pushes it to much more dramatic, though never dark, territory; it’s about as far removed from Tropic Thunder, Stiller’s previous directorial outing, as you can get. In fact, the movie works best when at its most unassuming and straight-faced, either depicting the off-kilter banality of Walter’s everyday New York City life like in the opening sequence or simply capturing the awe-inspiring beauty of the countries that he visits, enhanced by some striking cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh and a jaunty, uplifting soundtrack. However, too often it becomes cluttered by a meandering, contrived plot that dips too far into alternately mild yet awkward humor or saccharine inspiration, not to mention some bizarre product placement.

        Though he’s more known for his offbeat, balls-to-the-wall comedic roles in such works as Zoolander, Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story and Night at the Museum, this isn’t Stiller’s first time going more serious, and the performance he turns in is sort of a meeker, less caustic version of his character in Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg. He appropriately plays Walter Mitty as almost a blank slate, a man who’s spent his entire life just going through the motions of living, who never takes risks or engages in interactions that he doesn’t have to. Yet, perhaps because Stiller isn’t really the cuddly, instantaneously endearing type or because Walter can apparently afford to fly off to Greenland or Afghanistan on a whim, he never quite feels like the Everyman he’s supposed to be. Even after surviving a shark encounter, escaping an erupting volcano and hiking the Himalayas, he seems to be fundamentally the same person we met at the beginning of the film, only slightly more assertive and, ultimately, jobless. Mostly, what he gets out of his travels appears to be the chance to embellish his eHarmony profile, which seems weird until you realize that, despite all the breathtaking scenery (seriously, that alone makes the movie worth watching, though maybe not paying for) and earnest platitudes about living life to the fullest, this is really a story about a guy finding the nerve and self-confidence he needs to ask out the girl of his dreams.

        That girl is his new coworker Cheryl Melhoff, played by a brunette Kristen Wiig. Far removed from exaggerated cartoons she portrayed on SNL or even Bridesmaids, Wiig gives off a charming aura that makes it easy to see why Walter fell for her, and she shares a subdued but easy chemistry with Stiller. However, her character never quite evolves beyond the obligatory love interest, feeling more like an ideal than a fully-fledged human being. Cheryl’s backstory involving a troubled relationship with her ex-husband is never completely explained. There were times when I hoped she would turn out to be a figment of Walter’s imagination, a literal manic pixie dream girl, conjured up by his suppressed desire to break out of his shell and explore the world, but alas, that likely would’ve been one twist too many for a movie already suffering from a disjointed narrative. Caught between comedy and inspirational drama, troubled nostalgia and carefree excitement, appreciating the ordinary and reveling in the extraordinary, Walter Mitty never establishes a confident path, floundering particularly in the second half as it performs backbreaking contortions in order to arrive at a neat, largely predictable ending. By the time Walter realizes that, like Dorothy, he’s had what he needed with him all along, it’s hard to not wonder whether the journey, while enjoyable enough in parts, was really worth taking to reach this destination.        

               
      

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Friday, December 13, 2013

Captain Phillips Review: Smooth Sailing Through Rough Waters

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              Paul Greengrass is a good director. In fact, throughout the past decade, he has discreetly become one of the most reliable mainstream filmmakers in Hollywood, with two solid contributions to the Bourne franchise, the heart-stopping and essential docudrama United 93 and the much-better-than-it-gets-credit-for Iraq war thriller Green Zone. For the most part, Captain Phillips plays up to his strengths – crafting compelling, coherent action scenes and navigating sensitive political material with a deft, almost ruthless lack of sentimentality – and he realizes them with such apparent self-assurance that it’s easy to forget just how rare, how admirable, those qualities are. To say the movie is adeptly, if not masterfully, executed almost seems like a backhanded compliment; a simple “well-done” doesn’t quite have the same ring as the usual superlatives like “brilliant, mesmerizing, zeitgeist-y tour de force”.

              But I can’t think of a more accurate way to describe Captain Phillips. From the opening moment, a subdued conversation between the titular character and his wife Andrea (Catherine Keener, cleverly but somewhat oddly cast in a role that amounts to no more than a cameo), to the end credits, the movie motors along at a pace finely calibrated so as to sustain the suspense while still letting each scene breathe and evolve naturally. This isn’t a high-octane actioner a la the Bourne movies; Greengrass allows the tension to simmer below the surface most of the time, like a wave ready to unfurl, so the occasional, sudden bursts of full-blown violence and turmoil feel all the more explosive. Henry Jackman’s alternately pulse-pounding and spine-tingling score energizes even the most deliberate scenes. The only glaring misstep is Greengrass’s signature “shaky-cam” cinematography style, which verges on distracting during the less action-oriented exposition, though by the time the plot really gets going, it becomes more seamlessly integrated.

              If nothing else, Captain Phillips should be commended for two things: reminding us that Tom Hanks is not only a likable celebrity but also a genuinely good actor and introducing us to Barkhad Abdi. Hanks has somewhat fallen out of the spotlight since he teamed up with Steven Spielberg for Catch Me If You Can in 2002, mired in the Middle-Aged Actor Trap of banal action flicks (The Da Vinci Code) and maudlin inspirational dramas (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), but here, he shows once again why he has five Oscar nominations and two wins to his name. Although much has been made of his performance during the last 20 minutes (and rightly so), those final scenes would not be nearly as powerful if Hanks had not been such a forceful, resolute presence throughout the rest of the movie, his calm façade masking a whirlwind of inner desperation. It’s undoubtedly his best performance since Saving Private Ryan. Equally impressive, if not even more so, is the Somali-born Abdi, who had no acting experience whatsoever before being cast as the pirate leader Abduwali Muse in 2011. Despite his inexperience and lean, almost skeletal frame, Abdi commands the screen with the unaffected poise of a veteran movie star. Where many actors would have delighted in the opportunity to chew scenery, he stays quiet, his sunken eyes burning with a steady, repressed intensity, matching Hanks scene for scene.

              With last year’s incendiary Killing Them Softly and the deceptively patriotic Argo and Zero Dark Thirty, as well as the upcoming American Hustle (formerly titled American Bullshit) and The Wolf of Wall Street, recent Hollywood has shown a surprising willingness to explore relevant, potentially provocative political topics (a trend that will hopefully continue with the impending, grittier-looking Captain America sequel). Captain Phillips follows in the footsteps of Zero Dark Thirty, a thriller that depicts real-life events with almost documentary-like detachment, right up to its inevitable, brazenly un-triumphant conclusion. While the film’s accuracy has been disputed in various circles, that does not take away from its nuanced, intelligent critique of American hubris and privilege, its refusal to succumb to easy jingoism or superficial catharsis. It may not have the harrowing gravitas of 12 Years a Slave or the emotional grandeur of Gravity, but Captain Phillips is, in its own way, fearless and worthy of celebration.










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Thursday, December 5, 2013

On Ignorance, Hypocrisy and Anti-Feminism

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***Note: For the sake of brevity, unless otherwise indicated, the term “men” in this blog post refers to heterosexual cis males.***

             A couple weeks ago, Joss Whedon made waves across the Internet when he spoke at an Equality Now dinner about his issues with the word “feminism”. While I don’t doubt that he had good intentions, and he did bring up an issue worth discussing (albeit not as revolutionary and novel as he seems to think it is), the overall speech is something of a disaster. Besides the fact that Whedon is a wealthy, heterosexual, cis-gendered white man and therefore not in a position to lecture feminists on how to run their movement, he demonstrates a complete ignorance when it comes to the history and theory of feminism and how oppression works. No one’s perfect, but considering that Whedon is viewed by many (unjustly, in my humble opinion) as a feminist icon, his lack of self-awareness is disconcerting, to say the least.

             That’s just one instance in an ongoing trend of anti-feminism. In recent years, a number of high-profile women, from Katy Perry and Taylor Swift to Susan Sarandon and Kelly Clarkson, have “come out” as not-feminist for a variety of reasons. It must be noted, first of all, that “Are you a feminist?” is starting to become as tiresome as all those dieting and beauty-related questions that actresses are blitzed with during press junkets. The whole idea that female entertainers are obligated to embody some kind of feminist ideal is misguided at best (you’d think we would have learned by now that viewing celebrities as role models can only lead to heartache and disillusionment, but apparently not). But that is not to say we shouldn’t be critical of public figures; after all, these are the people who, in theory, possess the power to make a significant impact on society. So, as unfair as it may be, when people like Kelly Clarkson and Joss Whedon publicly reject feminism, it reflects poorly on the movement as a whole.

You heard Tina Fey: this is not helpful.

There are plenty of valid reasons for a person to not identify as a feminist. It’s no secret that the movement has a rather troubled history of focusing on the needs of a specific demographic (namely, upper/middle-class heterosexual white women) while marginalizing or downright ignoring other, less visible groups – hence, the emergence of intersectionality and Alice Walker’s womanism. As a collection of many different individuals with their own personalities, backgrounds, beliefs and values, feminism encompasses a wide range of complicated, even contradictory ideas, which inevitably results in disagreements and internal conflict. In fact, the principles of feminism are so broad and loosely defined that they render the term pretty much meaningless; labels matter little compared to actions, so as long as you consciously strive to create change, it doesn’t matter what you call yourself.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

A Childhood Disillusioned

StarGazer

        Like pretty much every American born within the past 50-plus years, I grew up on the works of Disney, my days filled with colorful, bubblegum-sweet images of princesses, cuddly animals and gift-wrapped-with-a-bow-on-top happy endings. I remember watching The Lion King and Aladdin (and, more shamefully, their sequels) on an endless loop, and I knew all the lyrics to songs like “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?”, “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid and Mulan’s “Reflection”. I’ve visited every single Disney theme park in the world, except for the one in Paris; I’ve been to a couple of them multiple times, since I’m a spoiled, extremely lucky brat. Just thinking about Toy Story still sends a shiver of nostalgic delight up my spine.

        Yet, despite these fond feelings, I've realized that Disney isn't quite the perfect, carefree utopia we like to imagine it is as kids. Even when I was younger, I didn’t particularly care for The Jungle Book or Snow White, though for the latter, that was as much because I thought the Evil Queen was scary as any discomfort over its depiction of women. I’m well aware that, like any other company, Disney has a more cynical corporate side that’s concerned more with marketing and branding than storytelling integrity. Still, it really wasn’t until certain recent developments that my mental image of the Disney/Pixar offices as some kind of magical paradise, a veritable playground for the imagination, finally and completely shattered.

        To start with a more subjective gripe, there’s the fact that their recent output feels drained of any ingenuity, consisting almost entirely of run-of-the-mill adaptations and sequels. Pixar, not long ago so renowned for their earnest creativity that the studio’s name was enough to get people flocking to their movies, has succumbed to the lure of lucrative merchandising and lazy sequels that pander to their audiences. I still can’t believe I actually paid to see the unfortunate dreck that was Cars 2, and I say that as someone who finds the first one highly underrated. While they’re still releasing original films and apparently plan to emphasize them going forward, even those lack the freshness that Pixar works had only a few years ago, and it’s disconcerting that they feel the need to keep up the sequel trend at all, especially since they appear to have no plans for the one non-Toy Story flick that actually could be good sequel/prequel/spinoff material.


I mean, come ON! It could be totally epic, I’m telling you.

        And then came the whole Brenda Chapman fiasco. A director getting booted off a project isn’t inherently cause for concern, as it apparently happens pretty regularly for animated films, whose directors aren’t as protected by guilds and unions as their live-action colleagues; after all, Pixar itself had previously replaced Jan Pinkava with Brad Bird on Ratatouille, and it’s already kicked Bob Peterson off next year’s The Good Dinosaur. However, seeing Brenda Chapman lose control of Brave was infuriating not only because it meant Pixar had replaced its first-ever female director with a man, but also because she supposedly had such an intimate, personal connection to the story. It seems Pixar trusted a dude to make a tale of female empowerment and mother/daughter relationships, instead of the woman who dreamed up the idea in the first place. Although we’ll never know what the movie would’ve looked like if they’d allowed her to stay on board, I wish we got to see her complete vision; it’s not like the version we did get was particularly impressive or even memorable. All the change of directors did was draw attention to just how much of a boys’ club Pixar is.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Captain America 2 or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Accept That Marvel Is Evil

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            This post, like many of my blog posts, was originally supposed to be a rant. As much as I hate to sound like an insufferable elitist constantly railing against the mindless unoriginality and lack of diversity in mainstream cinema, my patience has been dwindling as rapidly as the ratings for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. For the first time, I kind of understand why critics spend so much time denouncing modern blockbusters as superficial fluff pandering to some fictitious lowest-common-denominator audience. With its emphasis on CGI bombast and manufactured hype shifted into overdrive, the summer movie season has become more exhausting than fun, and this year, I found myself rejoicing when fall (aka awards season) finally arrived because even though Oscar-bait has its own problems, at least it involves something other than white dudes in colorful spandex punching one another for hours on end.

            Of course, you could pose any number of valid arguments about how all the doom-prophesizing and rose-colored yearning for the good ol’ days when artistic integrity really meant something is bullshit, which it is. In terms of financial success, the blockbuster format is as alive and well as ever; in fact, despite the widespread media coverage of bombs like The Lone Ranger and After Earth, 2013 turned out to be Hollywood’s most lucrative summer of all-time. Plus, even though studios increasingly rely on tent-poles like superhero movies to generate their profit, they still manage to produce plenty of smart, ambitious, more intimate films along with the big-budget extravaganzas. Besides, it’s not like Golden Age Hollywood was a shining beacon of innovation and daring either. The only real differences between then and now are that action flicks have surpassed musicals and westerns in popularity and movies tend to revolve around brand names rather than star power.

            My frustration has nothing to do with nostalgia. If anything, with the rise of indie cinema, I’d venture to say that cinema is overall in better condition than it was before, since it’s become easier than ever for unconventional filmmakers and previously marginalized voices to reach an audience. For example, I highly doubt that movies like Gravity and 12 Years a Slave would have gotten released fifteen or twenty years ago, let alone become frontrunners for Best Picture, and only five years ago, not a single woman had ever won an Academy Award for directing.

Still so happy for you.

In general, I like to think of myself as fairly open-minded when it comes to art, and my heart has been broken enough times by movies, from Eragon to The Lovely Bones to Prometheus, that I have more or less accepted the fact that most things won’t live up to my expectations. But for whatever reason, whether it’s because Hollywood really is undergoing some sort of creative implosion or I’ve just gotten a lot more cynical and hard-to-please lately, this summer seemed even worse than usual. The breaking point for me was Man of Steel. Sitting in the theater during the last hour or so of that movie, alternately fighting the urge to glance at my watch and stuffing my fist in my mouth to stop from bursting into inane laughter, I could actually feel my soul being crushed. It was like witnessing the apocalypse, the moment when it dawns on you that the future is doomed and hope is nothing but a fool’s dream, a cruel prank. Is this really what we have come to? Struggling to be amused by an insultingly blatant recreation of 9/11 and stilted dialogue spoken by characters with all the depth and charisma of blank paper? After the letdowns that were Iron Man 3 and Star Trek into Darkness, this was the last straw, the icing on the cake of mediocrity.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

12 Years a Slave Takes an Unflinching Look at the Ugly Side of American History

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        The American movie industry has a spotty record when it comes to portraying black history. When portraying blacks or African Americans on screen, they lean toward one of two extremes: either the more overtly racist route of such notorious works as Birth of a Nation or feel-good narratives clearly designed to appeal to white audiences, like Mississippi Burning or The Help. Slavery in particular is treated as a taboo subject, a secret people have spent a century trying to bury and forget, despite how deeply and inextricably woven it is into the fabric of American history. The few times when a film does touch on the topic, it’s usually whitewashed, its most horrifying aspects glossed over. As a result, when a movie like Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave comes along, one more concerned with being honest than comforting, it feels like a precious gem that should be coddled and treasured regardless of its flaws. For these kinds of movies, merely existing seems like a triumph.

        Fortunately, 12 Years a Slave is a damn good movie even without considering any of the historical importance critics might attempt to assign it, but it has imperfections as well that can’t be overlooked. McQueen approaches the struggles and life of Solomon Northrup, the kidnapped freeman-turned-slave played by Chiwetel Ejiofor in his long-overdue first leading role, with the same meditative detachment he used for his previous films. Again relying on extended sequences without dialogue and a camera that prefers lingering on a shot to frequently moving or editing, he lets each scene simmer and evolve on its own, resulting in a movie that meanders at times but also effectively evokes the tedious drudgery and fear that filled these slaves’ everyday lives. This patience pays off in scenes like one roughly midway through the film involving Northrup dangling from a tree, a noose around his neck, as the rest of the plantation’s slaves and residents continue their daily business around him, barely even giving him a second glance. Filmed mostly in a single, immobile shot, it’s a haunting sequence that demonstrates the dehumanizing effects of slavery, showing that it was insidious not just because of its innate cruelty, but because it made moments like this so commonplace that people learned to ignore them. This was simply their life, and stripped of their families, identities and dignity, few of these slaves could afford to think or care about anything other than their own survival.

        Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, who also worked with McQueen on Hunger and Shame, conjures up mid-19th century Louisiana with its vast swampy expanses, groves of weeping willows and statuesque mansions in gorgeous 38 mm film, the landscape’s rustic yet subdued beauty only enhancing the story’s brutality. Imbued with tension by an ominous, sometimes appropriately discordant score by Hans Zimmer and enhanced by top-notch costume and set design, the movie eschews easy, stylized sensationalism for something less immediately cathartic but more honest and unsettling, treating the unfolding events with unobtrusive impartiality and trusting audiences to generate their own emotional responses. They say not this is how you should feel, but rather this is how it was. When faced with such systematic, dehumanizing cruelty, how could you not feel?

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Representation, Point-of-View and How to Fix Blockbusters

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             One of the most common responses to women who criticize the lack of prominent, well-written female superheroes is something along the lines of: “Who cares if the main character is a man, as long as the movie is good?” Which is technically true, since movies like Citizen Kane and The Lord of the Rings aren’t any less great for revolving around rich white men (or, in the case of the latter, hobbits), and despite the growing dissatisfaction with TV antiheroes, Tony Soprano, Don Draper and Walter White will always be complex, fascinating characters.

             But as much as some people try their damnedest to ignore it or to dismiss it as irrelevant, media representation is a big deal. Consider the explanations studios use to defend their reluctance to release a mainstream superhero movie headlined by a woman:

1)      Women can’t carry movies (ahem, Sandra Bullock says hi and go fuck yourself).
2)      Women don’t go to see genre movies (indeed, every single person who’s ever gone to any sci-fi, fantasy, action or horror movie is a white male between the ages of 12-25).
3)      Catwoman and Elektra sucked, so clearly, female superhero movies just inherently suck (never mind that Daredevil and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, among others, also sucked).
4)      It’s too big of a risk (after all, The Hunger Games was a major box office bomb – almost as bad as John Carter!).
5)      There aren’t many actresses who are kick-ass enough to pull off action roles (oh, please).

            So, yes, it matters a lot. It matters because, 27 years after Sigourney Weaver vanquished a colony of aliens in James Cameron’s adrenaline-charged action classic, we shouldn’t have to tolerate these bullshit excuses anymore. It matters because we live in a world where a feature-length, live-action blockbuster centered on Aquaman seems less far-fetched than one with Wonder Woman, where we have to struggle to get Black Widow her own solo project, yet Marvel can make a movie containing a CGI raccoon with a freaking rocket launcher and no one bats an eye. It matters because at one point this year, the D.C. metropolitan area had a whopping 25 screenings of movies about women. It matters because whenever a non-white actor is cast in an even moderately high-profile role, Internet message boards are flooded with commenters fuming about how the PC police are destroying the integrity of their beloved franchise with “lazy” attempts to “diversify” (apparently, the continuity of a fictional universe matters more than any desire to break down decades of institutionalized prejudice).

Let’s not forget that time when so-called “fans” of The Hunger Games spewed racist complaints about a character that was explicitly written as black in the source material.

           Perhaps most importantly, though, it matters because, as any English teacher will tell you, point- of-view is a vital part of storytelling, if not the most vital part. After all, at their core, stories are about the journeys of characters, their efforts to complete a task, satisfy a desire or overcome an obstacle; who those characters are defines the story’s direction, tone, pacing, ideology, everything. You can’t just choose any random character to be your protagonist, and you can’t change your protagonist without completely changing the story.

Monday, October 14, 2013

On The Bechdel Test and “Strong” Female Characters

StarGazer

***SPOILER ALERT!***
Pacific Rim
Iron Man 3

        One of the first topics brought up in any conversation about gender politics in pop culture is the Bechdel Test. You probably know what I’m referring to, but in case you’ve been living under a rock or need a refresher, here’s a helpful link that not only explains the test’s rules, but also evaluates recent movies based on well they fulfill those requirements.  When explaining the test’s purpose, it’s tempting to say that it shows how “feminist” a movie or TV show is; however, that’s not quite accurate, and such an explanation is both overly simplistic and misleading.

        Really, the Bechdel Test has very little to do with indicating what films are women-friendly or the overall quality of the work itself, and as an arbiter of individual movies, it’s a next-to-pointless exercise. Nowhere is there any criteria dictating how complex or plot-essential a female character should be in order to count, though a sometimes-included rule requiring the characters to have a name means passing movies will have two women who aren’t just glorified extras. Even then, they could be horribly offensive stereotypes (see: Anne Hathaway’s shameful post-first-Oscar-nomination dud Bride Wars). In addition, its pass/fail grading system makes it easy for people to turn the test into the be-all-end-all of feminist pop culture criticism, potentially shutting down more in-depth conversations about how the work actually deals with gender. Again, just because a movie passes, it doesn’t mean that it’s feminist or a good movie, and a movie that fails isn’t necessarily sexist or bad.   

        This isn’t to say that we should straight-up burn the Bechdel Test. In fact, even almost thirty years after it was first conceived, it remains an important and (sadly) relevant tool. Its problems arise less from the test itself and more from people who misuse or don’t completely understand it. The test works best when you broaden the scope and critique entertainment on an industry-wide scale; whether one specific film does or doesn’t pass is of no consequence, but after looking at enough movies, a trend emerges: the fails are way more numerous than the passes. Considering how rudimentary the test is, this knowledge is sobering, to put it mildly. ‘Cause women never have anything more fascinating than dudes to talk about, amiright?

I think these ladies would beg to differ.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Gravity Review: The Final Frontier

WordMaster


              Gravity starts with noise, a rumble that crescendos to an almost unbearably deafening roar, the title displayed in stark white letters on a black background, and then – silence. The screen cuts to a shot of Earth from space, a tiny object emerging from behind the arc of the massive planet and drifting slowly toward the camera. It’s an unnerving sensation to sit in a movie theater so quiet you can’t move, let alone whisper or reach into the popcorn bag on your lap for a handful. From the very opening moments, director Alfonso Cuarón takes your breath away, and he refuses to give it back until the title card flashes across the screen again 90 minutes later.

              To abuse a cliché and the notion of hyperbole, Gravity isn’t a movie so much as an experience. You’ve probably heard people say that about all sorts of movies, and you’re probably rolling your eyes at this very moment, but in this case, it’s completely true. The story is serviceable, essentially 127 Hours set in space, but there’s a reason why critics came out of Venice and Toronto gushing about the special effects and not, say, the nuanced character development or innovative plot arc: simply put, the movie is an absolute marvel to look at – and that’s putting it lightly. Even without IMAX or 3D, it’s impossible not to get swept up in the awe-inspiring scope of the imagery, the graceful, dizzying ballet of the camera as it circles around the astronauts and zooms out to remind the audience just how tiny they are compared to the vast universe. To describe the visuals further would almost do them a disservice, as you can’t appreciate just how damned gorgeous they are unless you see the film, so suffice to say that cinematographer  Emmanuel Lubezki and visual effects supervisor Tim Webber should be all but locks to win Oscars in their respective fields.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Ain't Them Bodies Saints Review: The Devil Wears Spurs

WordMaster


             Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, the feature debut of editor/cinematographer David Lowery and owner of the year’s most amazing title, is the kind of movie that you can’t talk about without sounding at least a little pretentious. It’s the kind of movie that invites descriptive phrases like “lyrical” and “atmospheric” from those who adore it and “derivative” and “languid” from those who don’t. In short, it’s a Film with a capital “f”; whether that’s a good or bad thing depends on who you are or, more specifically, how partial you are to copious lens flare and long shots.

             As it turns out, both descriptions are somewhat true. On the one hand, the story itself, following two young lovers after he takes the blame for a police officer’s death, isn’t anything special; you can clearly see the influence of old-fashioned Westerns and ‘70s-era crime dramas such as Badlands and Bonnie and Clyde, with a sprinkling of Homer’s The Odyssey thrown in for good measure. The film functions more as an homage to those classic genres than as an attempt to subvert them, adhering fairly close to time-honored tropes like that of the enigmatic, morally ambiguous outsider and the steely-eyed lawman (though in this case, the latter figure is represented not by Ben Foster’s kindly police officer but by Keith Carradine’s menacing criminal-turned-guardian). Not a whole lot happens in the movie. Lowery, like a certain reclusive auteur to whom he’s been frequently compared, is more interested in mood than plot or character development.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Review: Don Jon Objectifies Objectification and It’s Pretty Awesome

StarGazer



        Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut Don Jon is like the more risque, rated-R-bordering-on-NC17 older cousin of his quirky 2009 hit (500) Days of Summer. Although not quite as inventive as that Marc Webb gem, Don Jon similarly studies romance through the skewed perspective of a young, self-absorbed man and positions itself as a takedown of rom-com clichés and traditional media portrayals of relationships. The result is a hyper-energetic, scathing critique of the ways Hollywood shapes both our love life expectations and our treatment of the people around us that has just enough genuine emotion to prevent the snark from feeling soulless.

        Just like with any regular romantic comedy, Don Jon’s success rests heavily on the shoulders of its cast. Fortunately, Gordon-Levitt has assembled a group of actors who are not only incredibly talented, but also share precisely the right kind of chemistry and mesh well without threatening to overshadow each other – not to mention, they all somehow manage to make the exaggerated Jersey accents amusing rather than unbearably grating. As the title character and inarguable lead, Gordon-Levitt exudes a delicate balance of charisma and sleazy, douchebag arrogance as he struts around the screen in a slicked-back pompadour and tank tops that deliberately show off his shockingly muscular arms. With his gym-sculpted appearance, immaculately groomed bachelor pad, preoccupation with sex and porn and unrelenting self-absorption, Jon is like a 21st-century Patrick Bateman but without the whole secretly-a-psychotic-murderer issue. The genius of the performance, though, comes from the way Gordon-Levitt takes what could’ve been an amusing but wildly unlikable caricature and convinces us that this character is capable of real change, that he is, in fact, human. As Jon becomes gradually more aware of the unfulfilling nature of his current existence, he taps into a repressed well of lost, insecure tenderness that might break your heart in the film’s climax, which also acts as a perfect example of how sex scenes can produce emotional resonance, instead of being merely titillating diversions.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Review: Pacific Rim Is a Robots’ World, We’re Just Living in It

StarGazer

***SPOILER ALERT!***




        If you mash up some of the biggest hits of Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich’s careers, you might end up with something resembling
Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro’s flashy, big-budget love letter to Japanese monster movies. The numerous scenes of robots and supernatural monsters beating the crap out of each other inevitably bring Transformers to mind, though the action here isn’t quite as mind-numbing. A diverse group of people who come together and have to save the world by dropping a nuclear bomb down a small crevice a la Armageddon? Check. In fact, the central motivation of the kaiju, an alien race that invades Earth from another universe, has been plucked straight from Independence Day, and there’s a speech at the film’s climax that aims for the fist-pumping adrenaline rush of Bill Pullman’s classic tribute to American exceptionalism and extraterrestrial ass-kicking but falls woefully short. Add in a dash of Godzilla, the movie’s most obvious and probably only intentional influence, and a pinch of James Cameron’s Avatar, and you’ve got Pacific Rim.

        Perhaps that’s doing the film a bit of a disservice. As loud and testosterone-heavy as it is, there’s a sincerity to del Toro’s vision that’s absent from the cynical, manufactured destruction porn of Bay and his ilk. Eye-popping, state-of-the-art CGI breathes life into the monstrous kaiju and robotic Jaegars, allowing viewers to fully appreciate the extensively detailed creature design, always a strong suit of del Toro’s work, and the care poured into constructing the movie’s internal universe and mythology is evident within the first twenty minutes. In contrast to the bleak, dystopian approach that modern sci-fi often seems to gravitate towards, Pacific Rim offers up a more optimistic future where humanity sets aside its differences in order to unite against a common enemy, because apparently, nothing brings people together like war and the threat of imminent annihilation. It’s a nice utopian ideal, even if the movie doesn’t convey it as effectively as it could have or transcend the usual, dumb action movie clichés quite as much as it wants to. Still, this earnest belief in the power of teamwork gives the film a lightness that prevents it from devolving into the monotonous, chaotic self-indulgence that too often plagues summer tentpoles.

Monday, July 15, 2013

My 2013 Emmy Wish-List

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        Another year of TV has come and gone. The 2012-13 season was an eventful one, as it marked the end of such landmark shows as The Office, Gossip Girl and 30 Rock, and introduced the world to new attractions like Hannibal, Orphan Black and 1600 Penn (hey, I didn’t say they were all good). Along with the impending final season of Breaking Bad and whatever else the summer TV slate has in store, this warmer weather signals the approach of those all-important Emmy nominations, which will be announced three days from now on July 18th. This means I get to make another list of things I’d love to see the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences do.

        Like last time, keep in mind that I’ve only watched so many TV shows, so I know there’s a lot of good stuff out there that I won’t mention, and these are things I want to happen, rather than things I think will happen. Also, there are a couple of wishes from last year that carry over to this year, like my feeble hope that the Emmys will give Fringe some recognition and my desire to see Walton Goggins and Vincent Kartheiser included in the Supporting Actor in a Drama category, but in an effort to avoid being repetitive, I won’t put them on my new list. Lastly, I feel the need to confess that I don’t actually put much – or, really, any – stock into the Emmys, but they provide a good excuse for me to gush about the TV shows I love. So, without further ado, let’s get this show underway:


Drama

        Hannibal for Outstanding Drama Series. With so many perennial contenders for this category still jousting for a slot (Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones and Downton Abbey, just to name a few), it would be easy to go with familiar names and overlook the handful of worthy new shows that emerged over the past year. Foremost among these rookie challengers, probably along with BBC’s Orphan Black, is Hannibal. I’ll be the first to admit that, when I heard NBC had picked up a show based on the younger years of the iconic, people-eating villain, I rolled my eyes and quickly declared the idea depressingly unoriginal, a massive failure just waiting to happen. Besides, it would be impossible to find an actor who could fill Anthony Hopkins’s Oscar-winning shoes for the title role. As it turned out, I was wrong. Although I still prefer Hopkins’s openly menacing yet charming take on the character over Mads Mikkelsen’s perpetually unruffled, debonair inscrutability, the show itself ended up being a dark, twisted psychological thriller with its own unique voice. Showrunner Bryan Fuller gives it just enough stylized flair to keep the procedural format from growing too monotonous and populates the world initially created by author Thomas Harris with complex, unpredictable characters brought to life by a talented group of actors. For my money, Laurence Fishburne, who plays Jack Crawford in a tour-de-force performance and was weirdly, disappointingly not submitted for Emmy consideration, and Lara Jean Chorostecki as the mysterious crime reporter Freddie Lounds are especially impressive. Touching on themes of identity, mental health and the nature and effects of violence, the first season of Hannibal provided a strong bedrock for what could hopefully become one of the next great TV shows in an age bursting at the seams with great television.
       CHECK IT OUT: “Potage” (Ep. 3), “Entrée” (Ep. 6), “Savoureux” (Ep. 13)     

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Welcome to the Age of Not-So-Super Heroes

WordMaster

***BE WARNED: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD FOR MAN OF STEEL, IRON MAN 3 AND CHRONICLE***

            For someone who’s never read a Superman comic or seen any of the dozens of previous TV and film incarnations of the character, I have a lot to say about Man of Steel. I walked into the theater with no real expectations, aside from what I’d heard about the movie’s possible feminist credentials; I’d only agreed to see it in the first place because a few friends wanted to see it, and I always like to be able to form my own opinions, even if those opinions cost $10 a piece. At the very least, I thought, Amy Adams should be a kick-ass Lois Lane, right?

            As it turned out, no. Wrong. Bare-minimum expectations not met. I walked out the theater fuming about the money I’d wasted, which is saying a lot (you’re talking to someone who saw Journey to the Center of the Earth – yes, the one with Brendan Fraser – and The Green Hornet in theaters and had no overwhelming feelings of regret), and struggling to suppress my urge to burst into a needlessly vehement rant like the guy sitting in front of me did to his amused buddies. If I felt betrayed, I could only imagine how someone who actually gave a damn about Superman felt, the countless people who looked forward to this movie the way I looked forward to The Dark Knight Rises.

            It’s a shame because, despite my hatred of Zack Snyder as a director and my indifference to Superman as a character, I genuinely wanted Man of Steel to be good. The dueling teaser trailers got my hopes up with their stark, poignant imagery and refreshing lack of in-your-face CGI; maybe, I thought, Snyder had finally ditched the irritating gimmicks that his previous movies unbearable (the fucking slow-mo and fast-mo in that train scene in Sucker Punch… rrrrrargh!!). Even after 75 years of comic books, radio broadcasts, television serials and feature-length films, it’s clear that Superman still resonates with people, contrary to the popular belief suggesting that his sunny idealism has become irrelevant in our age of antiheroes. In theory, Man of Steel presented a clean slate for the icon, unbound by obligations to follow the continuity of past cinematic efforts and allowing the filmmakers to remodel him for modern sensibilities. In theory, Henry Cavill and Amy Adams seem like spot-on casting choices, with his chiseled, hyper-masculine good looks and her down-to-earth feistiness. In theory, a Christopher Nolan-influenced version of the story, full of post-9/11 angst and moral ambiguity, could have worked.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The ‘S’ Stands for “Snooze”

StarGazer



        Man of Steel starts out promisingly enough. It opens on Krypton as Lara Lor-Van is giving birth to a child we know will become Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman, and a group of dissidents led by Michael Shannon’s General Zod stages a military coup when the planet’s current leadership refuses to help save their civilization from annihilation brought on by their excessive consumption of natural resources. Though this sequence feels rather derivative thanks to its striking similarities to the prologue for J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek, right down to the heavy use of lens flares, it nonetheless effectively establishes an emotional base that would ideally anchor the rest of the film. Ayelet Zurer as Lara and Russell Crowe, who plays her husband and Superman’s biological father, Jor-El, are convincing even while delivering some grandiose dialogue (indeed, they’re pretty much the only actors in the movie who are able to make the dialogue sound natural), and as Lara watches the spaceship carrying her just-born son disappear into the sky while the world around her literally goes up in flames, you get a real idea of how she and Jor-El have tied up all their hopes and dreams in his survival, of the weight of the burden placed on the shoulders of this child who has only just entered the world. There’s genuine gravity to the situation, but the movie that follows fails to maintain this level of urgency, instead descending into cheap action scenes and Roland Emmerich-level destruction porn.

        One of the difficulties of adapting Superman for the screen has always been in generating meaningful internal – or even external – conflict for a character that is not only essentially invincible, but also sports squeaky-clean morals. As someone who’s completely ignorant about anything comic-book-related, I can’t say whether this lack of complexity has always been part of the character or the result of general pop culture and Hollywood oversimplifying him, but the fact remains that, in a modern age where people are drawn to the troubled darkness of Batman and flawed egotism of Iron Man, Superman, with his boy scout, do-gooder attitude and unabashed optimism, feels out-of-place and un-relatable. Zack Snyder and co. attempt to fix this problem by giving the hero a moody background full of bullying and I-never-asked-for-this angst. After seeing numerous flashbacks of Clark’s childhood, like an episode where he rescue his classmates, including a kid who’d been teasing him, after their school bus careens off the road and into a river, we learn that he’s always been driven by the innate need to help people and that he feels a great sense of alienation, but that’s about it. We never get more than the most basic glimpse of his inner psyche, and even this is largely discarded by the time the movie’s central plot kicks into gear.