Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Welcome to the Age of Not-So-Super Heroes



            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”


        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.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Before Midnight review: Love in the 21st Century


            More than 18 years ago, Ethan Hawke asked Julie Delpy to get off a train with him in Vienna and unknowingly set off perhaps the most unconventional franchise of all time, a story about two bright, pensive, hopelessly idealistic youths who fall in love and talk and talk. And talk. During their first night together, Jesse and Celine discussed everything from their parents to religion to the meaning of life, and their meandering conversations imbued what could have been the epitome of arthouse pretentiousness with an endearing authenticity. By itself, Before Sunrise would still have been a sweet, thoughtful romance that accurately captured the mood of a certain generation both empowered and trapped by its own promise, but with his decision to continue Jesse and Celine’s story beyond the moment when she boards the train without him, writer-director Richard Linklater has crafted something special: a romance unflinching in its honesty yet delightfully free of cynicism.

            Before Midnight, the third installment in the series, is also perhaps the best. On the surface, it may not seem much different from the usual marriage-in-crisis drama a la Blue Valentine, Rabbit Hole or Revolutionary Road, but whereas those movies plunge headlong into the depths of tragedy and despair, Before Midnight lets the tension simmer just beneath the surface so that when it finally, inevitably culminates in a heated argument, the outburst of emotion feels not harrowing but simply heartbreaking. It helps that after Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, we’ve spent so much time with Jesse and Celine that their relationship feels utterly real – neither a fairy-tale nor a nightmare but so much in between, the accumulation of countless shared memories, experiences, compromises, hopes and regrets. All the more impressive is Linklater’s ability to invite us into his characters’ minds, to share their secrets, motives and histories, without resorting to contrived exposition or shattering the illusion that we are watching actual people live their lives, rather than characters subject to a fixed narrative. The dialogue unfolds with such invigorating ease that it’s easy to forget that every word, tangent and nuance was meticulously scripted, yet even the most banal snippets resonate with implicit meaning. In most hands, the film’s leisurely pace and fluid structure would result in a tedious, unfocused mess, but for Linklater, it proves liberating, allowing each scene to breathe.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Wonder of Not Being Spoiled


                For the following:

Game of Thrones
Iron Man 3

        I hate spoilers with a burning, fiery passion. On a list of things I hate most in the world, spoilers are probably number three, right behind war and bigotry. Okay, well, that’s a bit of an exaggeration (my priorities aren’t that messed up), but let’s just say that I’m the kind of person who’ll cover my ears and start yelling “Lalalala” at the top of my lungs whenever someone starts talking about a movie or TV show episode that I haven’t seen yet.

        In this day and age, though, it’s impossible to avoid spoilers completely, especially if you’re an entertainment junkie like me. Between social media sites like Twitter and Tumblr that allow people to instantly share and dissect information, increasingly pervasive advertising campaigns and the general Internet Age mentality of “Tell me everything!” rather than “Surprise me!”, it has become easier to find out whatever you might want to know about a given movie, TV show, book etc., along with a bunch of stuff you don’t want to know or don’t care about. You can figure out whether something’s supposed to be good weeks – sometimes even months – before actually seeing it, thanks to film festivals and advanced screenings, and the sheer amount of coverage given to nearly every step of a major project’s development process, from casting rumors and tidbits about the plot or characters to publicity stills and on-set photos, has left little room for mystery. If you haven’t seen a movie in its first week of release or the latest TV episode within a day or so of when it first airs, going Internet-free – or at least shunning entertainment and social media websites – would be advisable. Had Hitchcock’s Psycho come out now, it’s hard to imagine that he would’ve been able to keep Janet Leigh’s sudden, first-act demise a secret the way he did when it was released in 1960.

         All of this makes it even more impressive when a piece of art or entertainment does actually manage to surprise audiences. Take, for instance, the penultimate episode in season three of HBO’s Game of Thrones, titled “The Rains of Castamere”. As someone who had devoured the A Song of Ice and Fire books years ago, I was both eagerly anticipating and quietly dreading this episode, which readers of the books knew would contain an event that came to define the series and traumatized nerds everywhere when A Storm of Swords was published in 2000. Known by the moniker “The Red Wedding” in canon, this event is so infamous and demanded so much secrecy that, while filming, the cast and crew referred to it only as the “Scene Which Shall Not Be Named”. What’s more, fans who had already been initiated into the horrors of the Red Wedding displayed some astounding dedication to keeping show-only newbies blissfully unaware of what was in store. Of course, there were exceptions, as has to be expected given that spoilers are a simple Google search away and there are always going to be some people who let a spoiler or two slip to a newbie, either in a deliberate jerk move or unwittingly. Still, the majority of readers played along, minimizing possible hints of the scene to coy winks and smirks.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Female Nudity and the Critic's Gaze


Between the convoluted plot and J.J. Abrams & co.’s reluctance to deviate from canon despite the fact that the franchise’s recent incarnation was set up as a reboot, not a remake, Star Trek Into Darkness isn’t quite the soul-crushing masterpiece I was hoping for. Basically, it’s more The Dark Knight Rises than The Dark Knight: enjoyable and well-acted with some great moments but undeniably messy. For all its flaws, though, the movie deserves to be remembered for more than a brief shot of Alice Eve in lingerie, which is apparently the biggest conversation surrounding the film, eclipsing Zachary Quinto's touching performance as Spock or, on the negative side, the blatant 9/11 parallels, numerous plot holes and even the troubling white-washing of Khan.

            That’s not to say the aforementioned shot isn’t worth talking about. Co-writer Damon Lindelof (who seems to attract outrage the way metal attracts electricity) and even Abrams himself have admitted that it was at best poorly executed and at worst misogynistic. Regardless of the filmmakers’ actual intentions, it’s easy to see how people would interpret the scene as blatant, gratuitous pandering to fanboys, since it had only the most tenuous connection to the ongoing action and apparently, all sci-fi movies should be marketed exclusively to dumb, horny teenage boys. As a whole, the film’s treatment of its female characters, while not necessarily outright misogynistic, is less than ideal. I’m all for a Spock-Uhura romance, but it would be nice if she got a storyline that didn’t directly involve her relationship with him, or if the character of Dr. Carol Marcus served a purpose beyond being a potential love interest for Kirk; I was disappointed that the movie never developed the budding rivalry between Dr. Marcus and Spock that was implied in her first scene (besides, if she ends up with anyone, it should totally be Bones, not Kirk, but maybe that’s just me).

            Even so, I can’t get worked up about The Scene. First of all, it could be argued that all the supporting characters, with the exception of Khan, were basically defined by their relationship to Kirk and/or Spock, and I was glad that Uhura actually got to utilize her language and fighting skills (hell, she got to rescue Spock at the end). Also, contrary to what one blogger says, unless my memory is mistaken, Uhura was not the only woman aboard the Starship Enterprise; like what Joss Whedon did in The Avengers, Abrams included some women and non-white people (!) in the background of the crew, which isn’t exactly progressive or worthy of applause but doesn’t erase the fact that they were present nonetheless. As for Dr. Marcus, it makes sense that Kirk would view her primarily as a sexual object and express little interest in her supposed intellectual capabilities, since Abrams’s version of the character has always been portrayed as something of a serial philanderer.