Man of Steel

This review has been edited after some deep introspection and discussion. Something is missed by this film– and because of that lack, there’s a bit of an emptiness to the conflict in this movie.

Is Man of Steel the Superman movie that fans have been waiting decades for? The Superman movie that doesn’t rely on kryptonite to get one over on our caped hero? The Superman film that captures the heroism, the ‘other’-ness, the moral dilemma in being an indestructible force, the vulnerability inherent in a person with such endless power who is also a good person, the potential in his powers? Does it pay the right homage to the established mythology of this hero that so many love?

Not exactly. The truth is that Man of Steel is very close to NOT a Superman movie. It’s more science fiction, centering on the fact that he’s an alien and other aliens are after him. Much of the idealism and heroism that we want from Superman is not there in anything close to the way it ought to be.

That said, Man of Steel is good, benefiting from a great cast and a generally interesting story.

Here is the trailer that a large portion of the human population has seen already:

The deets:

Released on June 15, 2013

Written by David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan, based on the character created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster

Directed by Zack Snyder

Starring Amy Adams, Diane Lane, Antje Traue, Ayelet Zurer, Henry Cavill, Kevin Costner, Russell Crowe, Michael Shannon, Harry Lennix, Richard Schiff, Christopher Meloni, Michael Kelly, and Laurence Fishburne

Rated: PG-13

*     *     *     *     *

Story

There is a man who can do amazing things. He saves people through incredible displays of strength and power. Who is this man? He is Kal-El (Cavill), the last hope of a dying world called Krypton, sent to Earth in the hopes of being a bridge between the people of Krypton and the people of Earth. And on Earth, Kal-El nearly has the power of a god.

Man of Steel envisions the Superman mythos as the story of a being who has to decide how he will live on a world that will always see him as different and too powerful. This is an excellent approach to the story, because that is at the very heart of the Superman character becoming a hero.

Also, in Man of Steel, we have a movie that is the story of an alien invasion that must be repelled by one of the aliens– one who has lived among humans and learned to love them.

So we learn about Kal-El, also known as Clark Kent, by following a non-linear approach to the story of his childhood as he struggled to fit in and his parents (Costner and Lane) fought to keep his abilities under wraps. We also learn that he has been trying to find where he came from and what he is supposed to do on this planet. So he is bearded and trying to find clues as to who he is and is trying to just live life on his own terms.

But a bad guy from Krypton shows up and wants to use Kal-El, because Kal-El holds the only way to bring back the people of Krypton. General Zod (Shannon) threatens the entire planet in order to encourage his quarry to surrender himself to Zod and his crew.

At the same time, Lois Lane (Adams), a reporter for the Daily Planet, comes upon the story of this being who has incredible power, and she digs and digs until she discovers the truth of this man, at nearly the same time that he finds this same truth.

There is a connection between these two. Lois is, as expected, a hard-nosed reporter who loves to insert herself into dangerous situations, and when she is faced with something otherworldly, she finds in herself a heaping portion of awe. As for Clark, having someone else to share his secret with makes all the difference for him.

Zod, of course, has nefarious plans for Earth, given that his home planet is destroyed. Superman has to decide if he can trust humanity, while at the same time finding a way to stop Zod, who shares his abilities.

It all comes down to the final 35 minutes or so of massive, city-scale destruction.

Critique

Let’s talk about what Man of Steel does right. First off, the casting is as near to perfection as possible. Henry Cavill makes an excellent young Superman, adding a vulnerability to his ridiculous good looks and making it easier to believe in him. Much is asked of him and Cavill steps up. Michael Shannon is bombastic and believable as Zod, his motivations having been honed over decades to a believable zeal. Russell Crowe and Ayelet Zurer turn in excellent performances as Kal’s father and mother, Jor-El and Lara. Crowe is particularly good in that he has to try to infuse the beginning of the film with a heroic purpose.

Amy Adams is all that we could have ever wanted in Lois Lane. Smart, determined, forceful, beautiful, and in appropriate awe of Superman. She gets some of the better lines in the film. Watch for the next-to-last line of the film. And watch how she becomes Superman’s soul companion immediately after the battle with Zod. She knows how what Superman has just had to do has affected him and she is there for him. What can’t this actress do?

Diane Lane is also tremendous as Clark’s adoptive mother.

Consider: Martha Kent has had to be the mother of the answer to that universal question regarding whether we’re alone. She has led Clark through the years of him having to hide his abilities. And now she has to cope with him being the center of the world’s attention. Lane convincingly does all of this and the moments between her and Cavill significantly add to the importance of Kal-El’s adoptive parents in the mythology here.

Then there’s Kevin Costner. The man can act, when inspired properly. He turns in a powerful and important performance here. It’s clear he understands what Jonathan Kent’s role is in molding and guiding Clark as a young man. I wanted those two moments– and you’ll know them when you see them– to last just a bit longer. Let the power of that upheld hand and Costner’s expression have its intended effect on you. His sacrifice there makes all the difference in Superman’s later life and the decisions he has to make regarding humanity. Think what you will about that sacrifice (and I might even agree), it’s still a turning point for Clark. And there, at the mechanic shop. Listen to what is said.

Rounding out the cast is Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, in a role that was somewhat overlooked and a little convenient to the needs of the plot.

Be glad that Jimmy Olsen was not seen as necessary here. Be glad that Lex Luthor, despite one blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene, is not an issue.

The characters and their needs, their priorities and goals, their hopes and dreams, all of this is the impetus that drives the story. And that is why the movie works as well as it does for as long as it does.

The non-linear format, where we have flashbacks to Clark’s childhood, does not lessen the power of the characters- it actually helps link the past to these characters’ present and helps us get a better look at who they really are.

More about the writing: This is, overall, a well-crafted film that allows characters to develop and events to unfold in a generally natural way. Some things are cut short, which was unnecessary, given the overlong final battle scenes.

I think it would be very nice if the movie makers could have finally answered the question about how Superman shaves.

I think it would have also been nice to see the decision that Superman makes between learning about his origins and donning the suit. This was not shown adequately.

The pacing is mostly deft, as we see each character in each scene moving toward either a decision or the results of a decision.

The visuals are stunning and mighty. But, combined with an over-loud soundtrack, the visuals at times became somewhat overbearing. Buildings falling, thousands of people dying.

Which leads us to the main weakness of this and other Superman films. But mostly this film.

Superman has endless power and many abilities. X-ray vision. Lasers from his eyes. Near-invincibility. Not needing to breathe for long periods of time. Unbelievable super strength. The ability to fly. Even in space. Super hearing. Super vision. Super speed.

The source of this power is the yellow sun, and this was better explained in Man of Steel than in any other Superman film.

But what powers, out of all of these, does Superman use all the time? Flying and incredible strength. Indeed, in the showdown between Superman and Zod and Zod’s cronies, because Superman can fly, is invincible and is incredibly strong, a city is laid to waste.

Thousands of people had to have died. Billions of dollars in damage. Buildings destroyed, roads demolished, the crust of the earth shredded.

Shouldn’t Superman, even one who has only just begun his life as a hero, have been cognizant of the massive destruction his battle is causing? Shouldn’t this concern him? Why wouldn’t he take the fight to space, where nobody can hear you scream and a building can’t be knocked down because he punches Zod through it?

Wouldn’t Superman know to use his X-ray vision, super speed, super hearing, in a way that helps him plan for where Zod or another enemy is coming from? Surely he can smell or hear or see things better, and his reactions are super fast.

Couldn’t he have found a way to use his laser vision to wreak remote havoc on his enemy?

Also, there is an issue of heroism, true heroism, requiring sacrifice. An important note is that it would have been better for Clark/Superman’s arc if he did not honor his father’s wishes and thus made his own sacrifice in order to save a life. There is very little in the way of personal sacrifice required of Clark/Superman; instead he becomes a defender of humanity after not trusting humanity and then he has a BMD (Battle of Mass Destruction).

These concerns are why Man of Steel, as a movie, falters. The writer/director team did not explore nearly enough the implications and possibilities with Superman’s powers and the hero was far too passive and able to be led by the nose. (Brief semi-spoiler up ahead!) Also, as usual, they found a way to reduce or eliminate his powers, adding some transparent artifice to his conflict.

This Superman was more thoughtful, although nearly as charming and square-jawed, and more genuinely vulnerable than previous ones, with the exception of the rather inept Superman we saw in Superman Returns. Sure, that one was about Superman’s heart and soul, but he was kind of weaker and unbelievably stupid for a guy who has been using his powers for so long.

It was nice to have a thoughtful Superman. But his brain turned off when the battle began, and that’s not okay. His job is to save people, not just have an epic, god-like battle with a well-matched enemy. He should have found a way to take his one-on-one brawl outside of the city. This thoughtful Superman should have done better.

But he didn’t. Because Zack Snyder wanted to knock buildings down.

And as the buildings fell, so did the emotional journey that the audience was on. Luckily, some of it came back in the final scene in the battle (although many fans will absolutely NOT like what Superman has to do to win this battle), but a lot of emotional momentum had been spent by that time.  The fight needed to be more personal, more gut-wrenching, and more requiring of personal sacrifice and determination. With a name like Man of Steel, and with writers like Nolan and Goyer this should have been possible; having him be required to have a will of steel would have been more satisfying.

As a final note, how wonderful would it be if a Superman film could explore the moral dilemma that Superman faces daily. He is an extraordinarily powerful being. His dilemma is about choosing when and when not to use his powers. How to use his powers in moderation. The choice to not simply impose his will on nations and people.

In any case, all in all, Man of Steel delivers a good movie, if not entirely a Superman movie. There is a deep and moving emotional core in this film, centered mostly on Clark as he seeks his purpose and also including Lois as she finds awe for a world she’d become cynical about. That deep core is not fleshed out enough, in my opinion, to the film’s overall detriment.

There is very fine acting and production value. The mythology, particularly the origin, of Superman is nicely illuminated. There could have been more fun and whimsy, but the humor that was there was quite deft. There absolutely should have been more personal sacrifice. Where is the heroism if all the hero has to do is flex his muscles just a little harder?

Finally, Cavill’s Superman is one that audience will want to see again in another installment.

Content warnings: Some salty language, plenty of comic/action flick violence (it’s not gory, but very ‘boomy’.)

Writing: 3.5          Acting: 5          Overall: 3.5

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Les Miserables (2012)

Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables is quite an interesting animal. It’s the kind of animal that you can’t look away from, but that evolution is pretty much going to have its way with. Some fine performances and hit and miss production value add to the absolute and total lack of baritone and bass– reducing the impact of a film that one supposes was supposed to knock you silly.

Instead, it comes off a little silly.

Here’s a trailer. Warning: quavery voices ahead.

The deets:

Released December 25, 2012

Written by William Nicholson, Claude-Michel Schonberg, Herbert Kretzmer, and Alain Boublil (screenplay), based upon the musical by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil, based on the novel by Victor Hugo.

Directed by Tom Hooper

Starring Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Samantha Barks, Helena Bonham-Carter, Isabelle Allen, Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Aaron Tveit, Daniel Huttlestone, and COLM WILKINSON

Rated: PG-13

*     *     *     *     *

Story

Odds are that if you are interested in this movie, you know the story. That said, here’s a summary. Jean Valjean (Jackman) was sent to prison for theft and had his sentence extended due to escape attempts. But he has now done his time and his parole office, Javert (Crowe), says he is able to go about his life but will always be a thief and must check in always.

Valjean, who went to prison after simply trying to feed his sister’s son, has become a hardened criminal and he goes about trying to scratch out some life. When a bishop (WILKINSON!!!!) takes him in, Valjean makes off with some valuable silver but is caught. But then the bishop acts as if he gave Valjean the silver, gives some more valuables, and tells Valjean that Valjean must now live a life of giving and forgiveness; the bishop has ‘bought (Valjean’s) soul for God.’

Now Valjean must choose, and he chooses to live a life of prosperity and charity, becoming true to the good inside him. But Javert is always at his heels. Fast forward many years and Valjean owns a factory and in a moment of neglect, allows an innocent single mother to be fired. This mother is Fantine (Hathaway), whose life spirals out of control and she ends up on the streets, partly because the people she has caring for her daughter are cheating her out of every penny.

As Fantine closes in on death, Valjean intercedes in a squabble at which Javert has shown up. Javert finds out that this is Valjean, but Valjean cannot go back to jail; he has to help Fantine’s daughter, Cosette (Allen). He gets the girl away from the terrible couple that have been ‘caring for’ her, the Thenardiers (Cohen and Bonham-Carter). Javert and Cosette escape Javert.

Fast forward again and Cosette (now played by Seyfreid) is a lovely young woman who falls in love with Marius (Redmayne). But Eponine (Barks) loves Marius too. What’s more, Eponine is the daughter of the Thenardiers, so she recognizes Cosette. A love triangle ensues, while the Thenardiers try to find Valjean and steal his money and Javert shows up to still try to catch Valjean. All of this is done with the French Revolution happening. Indeed, Marius is one of the student revolutionaries along with Enjolras (Tveit).

We have multiple showdowns between the revolutionaries and the French army, as well as between Javert and Valjean– which leaves Javert questioning what he thought was his righteous cause. When all is said and done, the truth of who Valjean is revealed and the lovers are together and tragedy has been the mother of wisdom.

And this is all done with singing.

Critique

Which is why it isn’t very good.

The book and stage production are obscenely powerful. The book is a sprawling epic that explores humanism, royalty, forgiveness, redemption, charity, sacrifice, heroism, dreams, truth, love, loyalty, and honor. The book is written by a remarkable novelist at the top of his game.

The stage production cuts through much of the detail and narrative and highlights the most dramatic events of the book with music and lyrics providing the connecting bridges between these events. The stage production is produced and performed by professionals for whom this is their livelihood. You don’t get on that stage unless you are a world-class singer and performer.

The movie cast almost entirely actors, some of whom might even be able to sing. The cast sings on set, right into the camera; no lip-syncing– which is a nice gimmick and does add immediacy but these people generally just can’t sing at the level required by the characters, the melodrama of these events, and a production that is loved by millions.

Setting aside a set design that wavers between kind of amazing and then very small-fry and seeming like a plywood stage set, and setting aside a plot and pacing that seem to be in a massive, helter-skelter rush, the singing simply doesn’t get it done.

Sure, for those who haven’t got a long history with this production, it’s passable. And for a crazed fan like this reviewer, there are moments that are effective, but so much of the singing is so darn weak and lacking in power, that I wanted the director to have said, “Dear heaven, we need to do better.”

Russell Crowe, you sounded like you were out of breath, your heart was in your throat, and like you had no idea that you should be singing more than two very high-pitched notes. You were the worst of the bunch.

Amanda Seyfried, you are adorable, but the quaver is distracting and actually shreds any emotional power you were trying to transmit.

Sacha Baron-Cohen and Helena Bonham-Carter, it’s not your fault. You were both good, but the director didn’t give you time to be sleazy enough.

Hugh Jackman, you started strong, but stayed at the exact same level.

Eddie Redmayne, dude, you can sing. Now get some freaking baritone.

Samantha Barks, thank you for being amazing.

Colm Wilkinson, I nearly died when I saw you as the bishop. You are flawless.

Tom Hooper, and for that matter Alain and Claude-Michel, what the freaking frak? Not one bass note was sung in this show. Maybe two baritone notes. Every dude singing in 2nd tenor? Seriously? “Singing the song of angry men?” If they’re men, where are the basses?

Ugh.

Also, slow down. Seriously.

See this movie, enjoy it for what it offers, but don’t expect powerful musical performances.

Content warnings: Plenty of melodramatic violence and implied terrible things. 

Writing: 4 (story will always be amazing)       Acting: 4       Singing: 2       Overall: 2.5

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Robin Hood (2010)

Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood is the second best movie of 2010. As an origin story, it has no peer. What’s more, it’s Cate Blanchett’s best ever performance.

Here’s a peek:

The deets:

Released May 14, 2010

Written by Brian Helgeland, Ethan Reiff, and Cyrus Voris (with some work by Tom (frakking!) Stoppard

Directed by Ridley Scott (favorite director)

Starring: Cate Blanchett, Russell Crowe, Matthew Macfadyen, Mark Strong, Max von Sydow, William Hurt, Danny Huston, Mark Addy, Eileen Atkins, Kevin Durand, Allen Doyle, Scott Grimes, Douglas Hodge, Oscar Isaac, and Lea Seydoux

Rated PG-13

*     *     *     *     *

Story

There’s a lot going on in Ridley Scott’s extraordinary Robin Hood. The British are out crusading and fighting the French; the British heir to the throne, Prince John, is turning out to have no morals or spine; Godfrey is helping the French with a plan to invade Britain; and British soldiers are anxious to go home.

The movie opens with a gritty battle scene and field, with the British King Richard (Huston) leading his army. We meet Robin Longstride (Crowe), who is a skilled archer and appears to be a bit of a con man. When Little John (Durand) calls Robin on what he thinks is a cheat, a tussle begins, which catches King Richard’s attention. Richard appreciates Robin’s honesty, but Robin, Little John, Will Scarlet (Grimes), and Allan a-dale (Doyle) are still taken into custody. During a disastrous battle wherein the king is mortally wounded, Robin and company escape and desert.

That’s right, Robin deserts from the British army. This is not your childhood Robin Hood, friends.

When the king is slain, his trusted commander, Sir Robert Loxley (Hodge), is given the crown to return to Britain and give to the new king, Prince John. But Loxley’s group is ambushed by Godfrey (Strong), who is a traitor to Britain. Robin and his three friends come upon the last part of the ambush, fight off Godfrey and nearly kill him, and end up in possession of the crown. Now they have a way to get back to England: by posing as Robert Loxley and his group.

Now Robin’s a criminal and is taking advantage of a dead man. But Robert Loxley makes Robin promise to return Robert’s sword to his father. On the sword’s pommel is a great inscription: “Rise and rise again until lambs become lions.” This reminds Robin of his childhood, where he remembers something about his father and a secret.

Robin and friends successfully pass off their deception, although Godfrey recognizes them. When his friends want to take off, Robin surprises them by actually sticking to his promise to return the sword. Now, Robin delivers the sword and is mistaken for Robert. Robert’s father knows Robin isn’t his son, but encourages Robin to maintain the deception for the benefit of the barony. What’s more, Robert had a wife, Marian (Blanchett), who is now Robin’s de facto wife.

These two have great chemistry and the dialogue between them as Robin grows into his role is truly marvelous. The intrigue of Godfrey aiding the french, now King John becoming a tyrant,  barons wanting to have more say in their country’s governance, and marauding tax collectors adds richness and texture to what, in the end, is a story of a rogue becoming a hero and of how love can grow from respect.

Critique

I have nothing bad to say about Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood. I think it’s rich, powerful, beautifully shot, perfectly acted, incredibly well written, and stunningly scored. I believe it is the second best film of 2010, coming in right behind The Fighter. 

Russell Crowe embodies a man who, while reluctant to become a hero, feels his duty and his need to do something good and significant. Cate Blanchett is vulnerable, sweet, and tough. Oscar Isaac hits it right out of the park as Prince John. William Hurt is fine as Marshal.

Robin Hood rises and rises again and then hits you right between the eyes. Great build up, great final scenes, great music. I love this movie so much.

Content warnings: plenty of medieval violence, some sensuality

Writing: 5          Acting: 5           Overall: 5

In this case, Rotten Tomatoes critics do not agree with me, but they’re wrong and cynical and hate babies, so forget them.

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