Friday, July 19, 2013

Man of Steel

I don't get all the hate heaped on Superman Returns.  Granted, I don't think I've seen it since it was in theaters, but it's not a bad movie.  If you want a bad movie based on a DC comic character, there are plenty to choose from --- ignoring the low-hanging fruit of Superman IV and Green Lantern, do you remember SteelSuperman Returns' only real crime was being a movie that didn't act as a proper tentpole for a franchise.  It was designed to look and feel like a Richard Donner Super-film, and it succeeded in that regard.  That doesn't make it very exciting to watch, maybe, but it wasn't bad.  DC and the movie producers were not shy about their intentions for Man of Steel; if this movie was successful, it would be the first in a string of DC superhero movies, culminating in a Justice League film.  Basically, they saw what Marvel did with The Avengers and thought, "We should probably do that, too."
Aside from Superman being a hitchhiking hobo and direction from Sucker Punch creator Zack Snyder, the trailer looks pretty good.  I was curious as to whether or not they would explain what Superman uses to shave, since even flames don't affect his body hair, but that is a fairly minor point.
SPOILER ALERT: they don't

Man of Steel begins on the planet of Krypton.  Actually, we spend a surprising amount of time on this world, following Jor-El (), the preeminent bodybuilding scientist on the planet, as he tries to convince the ruling class that their world is going to end.  They don't believe him, which turns out to mean absolutely nothing because they are promptly murdered by Krypton's preeminent shouting soldier, Zod ().
"Kee-rist, Zod!  Inside voices, please!"
So what's the point of these scenes?  Well, Jor-El takes some desperate chances while Zod's forces battled the government; he grabs something of great importance to Krypton's people (a skull) and does something questionable with it (dissolves it over his infant son), because science.  Sure of his apocalyptic conclusions, Jor violates almost every FAA rule and sends his baby boy to Earth, via rocket, all by his lonesome.  And then Zod kills Jor and Krypton explodes.  Not before Zod and his forces are overcome and punished by being trapped in another dimension, though.
Zod looks like the sort of guy who types with the caps lock key on
On Earth, that infant grows up to be Clark Kent (), and his alien physiology makes him different from normal folks in a variety of ways: super-strength, heat vision, super-speed, etc.  You know the super-drill.
Or maybe this super-drill is a little more angry than what you're used to
Clark was taught by his adoptive father () to keep his head low and hide his extraordinary abilities.  The logic to this being that people fear what they do not understand super being might get his feelings hurt?  Whatever the reason, Clark grows up to be a do-gooding drifter, helping random people out whenever he can and then slinking off into the shadows before they can ask him any questions.  Eventually, Zod and his minions come to Earth, looking for the son of Jor-El.  Their entrance is dramatic, and they essentially offer to spare the Earth if their fellow Kryptonian turns himself over to Zod.  But what does Zod really have in mind for the people of Earth?  And what does this mean for Clark?  Where does Clark fit in, as the child of two worlds?  What kind of "man" is he?  (The answer is "super.") 

The acting in Man of Steel is all pretty much above-board.  carried the angst of his character very well; this is easily the best acting I've seen from him.  Cavill also looks fairly tough, so the concept of him being able to punch through your face seems a little less far-fetched than some other actors who have played the part.  While Cavill's Superman was certainly sympathetic --- I would argue he gave the most vulnerable Superman performance on film to date --- he doesn't show much personality beyond the angst; but that is more of a script issue than a fault in Cavill's portrayal.
"Alright Henry, for this scene, imagine that your iPod has nothing but Morrissey on it"
Superman's love interest, Lois Lane, is played by , and this is the best Lane we've seen on the big screen.  She actually seems strong and intelligent, like an award-winning reporter should.  Almost as important, her "plucky reporter" bit wasn't obnoxious.  I thought did a pretty good job as an overprotective parent; Costner can be a little one-dimensional in this role, but it was refreshing to see anyone in this movie look genuinely concerned over Superman's well-being.
"Son, just calm down...and please don't murder me and your mother"

I have some serious issues with the writing of his character, but Costner did a fine job acting.  was also okay as Clark's mother, although her part is pretty conventional.  I will say that it felt odd seeing her play a part that was a touch too old for her.  was good as Jor-El; he was suitably stoic when he played a hologram, but his action hero turn on Krypton seemed a little un-scientist-like.  Still, he was in a lot more of the movie than I expected and wasn't bad by any means.  Ayelet Zurer had a small part as Superman's Kryptonian mom, but it didn't really amount to much.  Michael Shannon's work as Zod was tough for me to rate.
And, at times, identify
Yes, he was suitably intimidating.  Yes, he provided a physical threat to Superman, something that most Superman villains do not do.  I think my issue has less to do with Shannon's performance than with how the character was written; when given the opportunity, Shannon made this awful monster sympathetic --- but we have to wait almost the entire movie to get to that point.  Until that moment of insight, he comes across as a gigantic asshole.  Nothing more, nothing less.  was Shannon's right-hand-woman, and she was decent; I liked what I saw, but she didn't really do much more than glare.  had a fairly substantial part and he played an aggressive authority figure.  Go figure.  I like Meloni, but his movie roles have been pretty bland lately.  and did very little aside from lending their familiar faces to bit parts.

I have to admit that didn't do a terrible job directing Man of Steel.  Snyder curbed his tendency to throw needless slow-motion in every scene and instead played to his strength: visuals.  This is a fantastic-looking film.  The set and costume designs were good, the cinematography felt epic, and the super-battles were suitably huge.
Above: epic super-fart
Snyder still can't direct his actors to do much more than shout, but that's less noticeable in a superhero movie.  I did start to get bored during the action sequences, though.  Superman and Zod knocked created a lot of collateral damage, but a lot of it looked awfully similar.  The important thing is this: Snyder is a director with visual flair, and he made a gorgeous Superman movie.  He didn't write the movie, though.

That was the work of David S. Goyer and, to a lesser extent, Christopher Nolan.  This screenplay certainly achieved one of its goals; I can definitely see this film spawning sequels and tie-ins, just as Iron Man set the stage for the films leading to The Avengers.  It also told a solid origin story and left some plot threads dangling that will doubtlessly be used in the inevitable sequel.  From a branding perspective, I suppose this script also sets the DC movie universe apart from that of the Marvel universe; there is a distinct science fiction vibe to this superhero movie, and that could open a promising door to some of DC's other characters.  Having said all that, I must admit that I didn't actually like the writing in Man of Steel.  For every character that was done well (Lois Lane, Jor-El), there were three or four that took everything with straight-faced indifference.  I don't blame the actors or the director for that.  The script leaves very little for them to do, aside from pose and look upset.  The worst case of this was Zod, who was a raving lunatic for 90% of the movie and then, finally, had a humanizing moment, although it came an hour too late to make up for his behavior in the rest of the film.  But that's not the biggest problem with Man of Steel.

My biggest problem with Man of Steel is with the tone.  To say that it is "dark" doesn't do it justice.

Superman's Earth-Dad straight up tells his son to not save people.  Hell, his character basically commits tornado-assisted suicide just to teach his son a lesson.  What's worse is the fact that our Superman-to-be lets it happen.  He could have easily saved the life of his adoptive father, but he opts not to.  That is not exactly the sort of thing you typically see in a movie with a hero in it, super or otherwise.  Of course, the back story is also pretty bleak.  The Kryptonians had colonies spread across the galaxy, equipped with terraformers to make hostile environments suitable for their settlers.  When Krypton decided that they did not want to expand their empire, they sent out a bus to pick everyone up and bring them home cut off provisions to those colonies, and everybody died.   Later, when Zod is preparing to end the human race by terraforming the planet, he ignores the fact that Kryptonians can, over time, get used to Earth without killing every living creature on the planet.  Why?  Because he would rather eliminate an entire species than be patient.  Of course, he also could have used the terraformers on any of the other dozen former colonies that he visited, but that would have robbed him of the chance to destroy all human life.  That's pretty bleak stuff.  And then there are the approximately three million civilian casualties from the Superman/Zod battle.  The city of Metropolis is ruined.  Completely.  Most of those collapsed buildings had to have people inside them, and that ignores all the people running for their lives as their world fell on top of them.  
Yeah, hold on to your coat.  That will help you.
Similarly, Smallville will take a decade to recover from Zod's visit.  The nameless Asian city off the coast of where the terraformer was probably took a lot of damage in the form of tidal waves, too.  Some people have issues with Superman killing Zod, but it makes sense in the context of this movie.  Zod was going to kill those stupid people in the railway station, and Superman did all that he could to stop it, because those random people were more important than the several hundred he punched Zod through during their battle.  Actually, I was a little surprised at Zod's execution, but there weren't many options, and that thematically confirmed Superman as a citizen of Earth.  Still, the presumed off-camera body count in Man of Steel is mind-boggling.  And that sort of destruction could work in another movie.  But in a Superman movie...?  I'm not so sure.  Hell, I'm not sure that more than one of those depressing-ass factoids makes sense in a Superman movie, much less all of them.  There is usually a sense of hope and optimism accompanying this character that can sometimes come across as corny Americana.
Not this time.  Man of Steel feels like someone saw what a gritty tone did for the Batman franchise and decided "If they like gritty Batman, they'll love gritty Superman!"  And I suppose they gave the people what they wanted, if the box office numbers are to be believed.

As a standalone film, Man of Steel is decent.  It was a relief that this movie didn't completely suck, and I hope to see more DC movies in the future, thanks to the success of this film.  Amy Adams and Henry Cavill are a solid core for this franchise and I wouldn't even mind Zack Snyder returning for another movie.  I honestly believe that they're going in the wrong direction with this, though.  Sequels have to up the ante, and the angst, death and destruction in this movie are already turned up to eleven.  Man of Steel was well-executed and impressive, but the questionable thematic choices kept me from truly enjoying it.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Pacific Rim

 Finally!  A Summer movie that motivated me to get on my butt and blog!  In a Summer when the apocalypse is commonplace (off the top of my head, we're talking about Oblivion, After Earth, World War Z, and This is the End, although I am sure there are others) I have to admit that I was still unnaturally excited for Pacific Rim, which promised little aside from destruction --- destruction provided by giant robots fighting giant monsters, which brings with it awesomeness at almost a cellular level.  That was not the only reason I was excited, though.  This was another chance for director Guillermo del Toro to show once again why he is one of the greatest visual directors making movies today.  And then I saw the trailer and started asking questions.
Did Idris Elba just give Bill Pullman's speech from Independence Day?  Do we have to watch two people in spacesuits perform a synchronized dance instead of watching robots punching monsters in the junk?  Is Charlie Hunnam going to be a muscular version of Sam Witwicky from the Transformers trilogy?  If you need to know, basically, not really, and blessedly no, respectively.
Also, I can't be the only one who recognizes the old Fox Sunday football robots, right?

Pacific Rim opens with a voice-over from Raleigh () bringing the audience up to speed.  In the near future, a dimensional rift opens in the Pacific Ocean and huge alien monsters come through.  These monsters are reminiscent of Japanese monsters movies, like Godzilla and Gamera, so they are called Kaiju, after that film subclass.
As you might expect, the Kaiju did some major damage, so the World Governments decided to team up and create the Jaeger program.  Jaegers are gigantic fighting robots that are piloted by two humans, who share some sort of Vulcan mind meld in order to pilot their metal beast.  For a while, the Jaegers worked.  Category 1 and 2 Kaiju --- that's a rating system based on their size --- were easy pickings for these awesome anime mechs/rock 'em sock 'em robots.
If a punch to the face is badass, how much more amazing is a ROBOT punch to a MONSTER face?
In fact, our narrator, Raleigh was a Jaeger pilot with his brother.  Unfortunately, they happened to be the first Jaeger to meet with a Category 3 Kaiju, and the brother was killed in action.  Years have passed and the Jaeger program is on hard times.  Their funding has been cut in favor of building large walls around major cities.
...which works out well
It is at this point that the Jaeger commander () re-recruits Raleigh to join up with the much-depleted Jaeger corps.  Thanks to his crack science team (composed of and ), he thinks there is a slim chance of being able to close the dimensional portal in a crazy, suicidal offensive maneuver.  He needs Raleigh because he only has four Jaegers left, and Raleigh is the only living person who has ever piloted one of the models.  But who will be his soul-mate co-pilot?
To find out, they endure several Dance Dance Revolution trials --- in spaaaace!

I always take the time to discuss the acting in the movies I review, but is that really necessary with Pacific Rim?  It's really not, but I found the acting to be a pleasant surprise in a film that could have gotten away with a lot less in that area.  Admittedly, didn't "wow" in this role, thanks to a combination of dull dialogue and serving as a plot device.  He wasn't bad, but he sure was bland.  , on the other hand, did some of his best movie work to date (his television work is still far better, though); his character was kind of a mish-mash of other end-of-the-world authority figures, but Elba was still able to make the part a little interesting.  was okay as Raleigh's partner; it can be tough making an introvert interesting in an action flick, but she was all right.  I was pleasantly surprised by , if only because this is the furthest he has gone from his role on It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
He was charming and fun, and I would love to see him stretch his acting chops more in the future.  wasn't as big of a surprise, but his portrayal of a scientist brought to mind Peter Lorre for reasons I cannot articulate, and that's probably not a bad thing.  , unsurprisingly, had a small part in Pacific Rim, since he and del Toro are such good buddies.  Perlman's work here reminds us that he's not that good of an actor, just a good sport, willing to put on any makeup necessary to look cool.
Above: Perlman and two other actors.  Get it?  He's ugly.
Rounding out the cast, and were perfectly acceptable in small, decently likable parts.  was obnoxious as the Jaeger equivalent of Iceman from Top Gun.  That may be the point of his character, but Val Kilmer sure was cooler.
How do they expect to play beach volleyball and high-five wearing that?

Most of the time, when I discuss movie direction, I focus on the camera work and the actor performances.  For Pacific Rim, though, so much of the movie was CGI that I am taking a different approach.  I really enjoy the work of director/co- writer Guillermo del Toro, if only from a visual standpoint, but I like what he did with the humans in this film. 
He scared them.
They could have easily been an afterthought, or worse --- an irritant, like those awful Witwickys.  Instead, del Toro introduced a reasonable amount of drama and character beats to a story that is essentially "punch monster in the face" for 85 pages.
Don't forget the four pages of "science-y doodads"
I was actually impressed that the story wasn't as predictable as I had assumed it would be; there was no unnecessary love story and the obvious choice for a sacrificial character was ignored.  Visually, this film was stunning.  The amount of detail that went into the set, robot, and monster designs was astounding.
Del Toro clearly put a lot of his efforts into the look and feel of this film, and it showed.  This felt like a plausible world, where giant robots had been fighting and breaking and being repaired for over a decade.  The script isn't very clever and del Toro still has not managed to really nail interpersonal scenes, but his work with broad visual concepts is impressive and exciting.
"Robots and monsters fighting in space" exciting?  Yes.  A thousand times, yes.

What is it about Pacific Rim that excited me, where others failed?  There have been so many movies lately that have shown vast urban environments being absolutely wrecked --- what makes this any different than, say, Man of Steel?  I think the biggest difference is in scale.  Because the robots and monsters are so gigantic, the camera is pulled far enough away for audiences to really notice and appreciate everything being smashed to bits.  That scale also seems to imply and accept large numbers of civilian casualties in a way that is expected and not ignored.  It isn't just that, though; several battles take place in the ocean and are still a blast to watch. 
I didn't get "action fatigue" watching Pacific Rim because it was fun and each battle did something else spectacular and over-the-top.  There was also enough wanton destruction to spread it fairly evenly over the entire film.  This isn't a back-loaded action movie where the cool stuff is all at the end --- some of the coolest scenes come during the opening voice-over.  If I am going to be perfectly honest, Pacific Rim scratches an itch I have had since childhood.  I played with Transformers and Voltron and build huge Lego things for them to smash.  While I have seen a lot (almost too much) CGI destruction of late, this is a film that captures the fun of playing with toys that are clearly scaled differently than everything else in your toy box.  Is Pacific Rim derivative?  Well, yes.  At its core, this is a classic kaiju movie done right, combined with combat mechs that animes seem to love so much and a large enough budget to make everything look good.  This movie owes a lot to many sources, but this is clearly a movie that loves what it is imitating, and even improves on its influences.  In a Summer of sequels, reboots, and outright flops, Pacific Rim stands out for being something I will be able to watch over and over, regardless of sobriety.