Thursday, June 20, 2013

Man of Steel (Zack Snyder); This is the End (Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen); Stoker (Park Chan wook)

Man and superman

If Zack Snyder's Man of Steel taught me anything it's to appreciate the Richard Donner/Richard Lester/Christopher Reeve Superman movies more. Especially Reeve--you know everything you need to know about his performance, you learn the key to his interpretation of Superman, from his stance.  

Reeve is tall; don't know if it's just his stature, or if the filmmakers built the sets/angled the camera to emphasize his prominence, or if fellow actors were cast to be markedly shorter than he is, but he's tall. When talking to someone (Lois, or Perry, or even the run-of-the-mill evil Kryptonian) he seems to look down from a position of moral authority--he's that tall.

It's more than just height, though--Reeve's performance works;  works at a glance, works for the length of the film, and the secret to the performance is, irreducibly, that aforementioned stance. You see Superman standing there, you're bewildered by the bright red-and-blue suit and intimidating height, you notice the slight stoop--and relax. He's  one of us (or if not exactly one of us at least believably on our side), and it's that stoop (he never seems comfortable in a room; his head bows forward, as if to avoid scraping the ceiling) that marks him as okay, the humanizing flaw in his godlike demeanor.  

Reeve's Superman is impressive and reassuring at the same time, but his Kent is a comic wonder--with those ridiculously thick plastic-frame spectacles for a disguise Reeves really comes into his own. He looks about helplessly, as if seeking directions; he sticks his limbs out stiffly at awkward angles as if unsure what to do with them, afraid he'll hurt someone (conversely he's constantly jostled by others, even if his elbows are nearly level with their faces); he stutters like Woody Allen on steroids, his handsomeness obviated by his harmlessness (perhaps a tribute to the character's Jewish creators?).

That's the character at a glance--or stance, if you like: Jerry Seigel and Joe Schuster in combining the qualities of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. and Harold Lloyd for their hero hit upon the essential magic formula, a mix of the quotidian and quixotic. Without the Fairbanks Kent would be just another adult Jughead; without the Lloyd Superman would be emotionally remote (if unfailingly noble) and dull. It's a balancing act that must be--but isn't always--maintained.

The Fleischer animated shorts hinted at this, though there was more Superman than Kent onscreen (their main virtues were the clean graphic lines, the sleek futuristic '40s design, the almost limitless possibilities available to animation that haven't really been matched, much less surpassed, even in this digital age). The George Reeve live-action TV show betrayed a glimmer of Kent's affability, set in low-budget surroundings (his foes were mainly gangsters and crime lords). In 1978 Alexander and Ilya Salkind managed to hire the perfect incarnation, an ubermensch with curvature of the spine, a hero with a built-in sense of humor. More than the grandiose John Williams score or (largely outdated though still impressive) special effects or huge production budget, Christopher Reeve got Superman to speak to us, made the Kryptonian superhero connect with our weak, imperfect selves.

Coming to the remake you see the problem right off. Superman Returns tried to make do with the unfunny Brandon Routh; Man of Steel has to settle for the even more muscular (and even less funny) Henry Cavill and, just to emphasize the break from Reeve, plays the young Kent as angry rebel, wandering the outskirts of America in search for meaning in his life. 

The results are kind of, well, eh. First time Kent is pushed to the ground and forced to swallow his anger it's compelling, but Snyder has to shove the allegory at our faces again and again and again. This isn't the Kent we know or love--it's a James Dean youth visibly apart from society, struggling to find his role in it. Speaking for myself if I wanted to see James Dean I'd watch James Dean; if I wanted to see Clark Kent, I'd watch Reeve shuffle two left feet. Cavill's painfully solemn transformation from disaffected youth to transcendent hero is about as interesting to watch as drying concrete.

A word on the rest of the movie, special effects, whatever: not a big fan of Richard Donner who, in spite of Reeve, creates your standard-issue Hollywood superproduction. Still Donner had his moments: when Superman takes leave of Lois Lane (Margot Kidder, a funnier and harder-edged Lois than either Kate Bosworth or Amy Adams) on her outdoor patio he floats away to the left; a pause of maybe a minute, then a knock on the front door--it's Clark in suit and tie, clutching an armful of flowers. Nowadays you just push a button and any number of Kents pop up onscreen beside their super alter-ego; back then you either failed to notice or scratched your head and asked "how did they do that?"

Likewise with Richard Lester, who with the second (and even, I'd argue, third film) brings a sly sense of fun to the proceedings. When Superman and General Zod (the inimitable Terence Stamp, who looks like he could take Michael Shannon out from between his teeth with dental floss) squared off entire buses are flung about, and we see those buses, the flash of their chrome trimmings as they fly across the huge sets. When Superman faces Zod in this installment the vehicles being tossed are ostensibly more photorealistic but there's a weightlessness, an insubstantiality to them that is, to be frank, depressing.

Mind you, I'm not saying the Donner/Lester Superman movies are great films--give me Del Toro's Hellboy or Altman's Popeye or Burton's Batman Returns any day (or even, if you like, Whedon's The Avengers or (better yet) Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog). But they're not bad, with Lester's Superman 2 as the character's big-screen apotheosis--an earthbound god with comfortingly clay feet.

As for the movie's ending (please skip the next three paragraphs if you plan to watch the movie, which I don't recommend doing): thousands maybe millions of people have just died and Superman cries over one cranky psychopath? True he's a fellow Kryptonian and our hero had just snapped his neck and likely feels all broken up for doing it...but it also feels wrong. 

Of course people have died; it would be complete idiocy for the movie to pretend otherwise, though what they do here is more interesting, a trend we've been seeing since Heath Ledger made a pencil disappear in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, continuing over to a starship plowing into San Francisco in Star Trek Into Darkness: they glide over the fact, with Superman ostensibly too busy to feel grief (or so we're supposed to think). 

Actually we're not supposed to be thinking at all--we see the pencil go up the man's eye socket in Nolan's Batman movie, we see the hurtling ship crush thousands of bystanders in Abrams' Star Trek movie, we watch thousands maybe millions more flattened by falling debris in this movie (which Nolan produced) and the act happens too fast to register properly or the camera cuts away at the last second or the steel and rock and glass fall out of frame, snuffing out innocent bystanders safely offscreen. No blood, no mess hey, no consequences, at least none you need worry about.

Getting back to the ending--so Kal-El kills, and he's upset about it? He should've been shocked at the first mangled dead body that fell to his feet (and shame on the filmmakers for not including that bit), numbed beyond emotion by the time he's up to his eyeballs in (indirectly, inadvertently shed) innocent blood. That he isn't, that despite his super hearing and super vision he reacts as if this is the first death in this whole borderline coherent affair is the single most dishonest moment in the movie. It's the new aesthetic, violence without the viciousness, having your R-rated cake and eating it in the PG-approved manner and I don't like it; it feels like I'm being pandered to and censored at the same time.

The End of the World News

Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen's This is the End is possibly the greatest twenty minute comedy ever made and what makes it great is a shot early in the movie: James Franco and his houseguests rush out of his multimilliondollar home, cut to reverse shot and all of Hollywood is in flames. I'd pay good money to see that.

Problem with the picture is that it isn't twenty minutes long; it goes on for another eighty-seven wearying minutes. And we get into the venality and cluelessness of the Hollywood elite (hold on--celebrities venal and clueless? Stop the presses!), we get Satan with a hilariously large phallus (well, that much was funny), we get Franco and Danny McBride threatening to spray their spunk all over the residence (that's funny too, and that's it, I promise). In between we get a lot of brotherly love (which you may or may not like, depending on how much you like Rogen and I don't), and cheap jabs at Rogen's phoned-in performance in Michel Gondry's The Green Hornet (which I actually liked, maybe precisely because he phoned it in and Gondry ran with it).

Otherwise--why does this movie even exist? I don't know; still trying to figure why Rogen has a career. Maybe Goldberg and Rogen felt the need to make some kind of meta-statement, their ultimate declaration of what really matters in life (your bro, and perhaps some quality weed); perhaps Rogen sensed the cold wind of mortality breathing down the back of his neck, and felt he had to stray a little into surreal comedy, toss a sop to those who polish the statues of cinematic greats. It's not much of a stretch (I'll probably be more likely to remember him for Pineapple Express); time and time again at the picture's grossest and most outrageous, I kept thinking "Monty Python did this better." Get back to me when Rogen is served his after-dinner mint.

Family ties

Park Chan-wook is off and on for me; didn't like his Vengeance trilogy much and particularly disliked Oldboy (despite moments of bravura directing), but did think Thirst was one of the better vampire movies out there.

And now this, his first English-language feature--basically Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt transplanted to Nashville, Tennessee (Matthew Goode's character is actually named Uncle Charlie). Scriptwriter Wentworth Miller improves on Hitchcock's film a little, adding that element of incestuous frisson that I felt the original needed (and probably wasn't ready to deliver at the time).

It's not Hitchcock or anywhere near as good as that; I wouldn't go that far. But Park yoked to a script that actually takes the effort to convey psychological realism or at least plausibility (whether or not it succeeds is a whole other issue) seems freer, more able to do bits of visual mischief (see photo above; the first shot of the film, of India (Mia Wasikowska) silhouetted in the horizon, in an apparently ecstatic moment; an all-too-brief glimpse of the contents of a freezer) while he trusts the storyline to make more and more sense as it unravels.

Wasikowska is wonderful; she sleepwalks her way through the picture (not necessarily a bad thing in a film that feels like a waking nightmare) and you read your own dawning comprehension of her and the film's true nature on her face as the story progresses. Matching her look for deadpan look is Matthew Goode. He made for an overobvious Ozymandias in Zack Snyder's wretched Watchmen (yet another comic book classic ruined by the man); here his creepiness is nicely balanced by a quiet charisma, and a sense of play about his role that you never got from Snyder's solemn train wreck, a hell of a lot more enticing than any mere act of seduction ("c'mon, try this--it'll be fun"). Only Nicole Kidman as India's mother is disappointing--she's basically playing Gertrude to India's feminine Hamlet, and you badly need a scene between them that clarifies or develops their relationship or at least India's feelings about her mother further (incestuous attraction don't seem right in this case--perhaps weary contempt? Patience stretched to the point of snapping?).

Some folks complain of predictability--I like to think what the picture has is inevitability, that sense that things will come into fruition and there's nothing you can do about it (which again reinforces that sense of nightmare). Will India fall under the spell of her uncle's homicidal influence? This is a Park Chan-wook film; take a wild freaking guess. 

Love the restraint--how Park withholds the crucial moment and keeps withholding it like a practiced onanist (see the aforementioned first shot, and later and even better, the shower sequence--which evokes Hitchcock, then trumps him for outrageousness). Love the gorgeous camerawork, which manages to be luscious and austere both. I'm almost wishing Park directed his own remake to Oldboy; he seems to do just fine this side of the Pacific Ocean. 



the lone gunman said...

You forgot to mention the part in Superman 2 when Reeve realizes the impending loss of life if the fight continued in downtown Metropolis and actually leaves. It stops the "action" cold but it after seeing Man of Steel, it actually makes sense!

Noel Vera said...

Makes more sense than Man of Steel did.

And all this talk of Gene Hackman being demoted to clown--Hackman is an excellent actor, a brilliant comic; part of it is you don't expect him to be so funny, but he is, and when he does comic roles, it just injects whatever film he's in with a terrific jolt of energy. He's not demoted here; on the contrary, he's been liberated.

the lone gunman said...

what moron said Gene Hackman was demoted to clown? Gene Hackman has ALWAYS been funny, even when he's scary he's funny. His Luthor makes Spacey's look dimwitted.

Noel Vera said...

And Spacey's no amateur comic.