Monday, 24 June 2013

'Man of Steel', 'The Great Gatsby' and 'Much Ado About Nothing': review round-up

'Man of Steel' - Dir. Zack Snyder (12A)

I feel like a full-on review of 'Man of Steel' would be pretty redundant at this point, as everything I had to say about what's wrong with it has been said better elsewhere. I'm talking about blog entries by comic book writers like Mark Waid (author of fantastic Superman origin story 'Birthright') and articles from critics like (massive DC comics nerd) Chris Sims of Comics Alliance, who spoke eloquently - and at length - about why it's a bad adaptation of its source material. I wrote a little piece on here about the film's gender politics, though mainly because that was one of the few problems I had with it that I hadn't really seen expressed elsewhere. But between that piece and those other reviews, you pretty much have my feelings on Zack Snyder's cynical, dour and needlessly grimy take on the Superman mythos.

SPOILERS, but it's hard to come away from 'Man of Steel' feeling that anything heroic has taken place given that, in the words of comic writer Brian Bendis: "you basically had Superman save the world but not without causing a worse than 9/11 disaster, make out with his girlfriend in the middle of it, and then murder the bad guy in front of children". When civilians emerge from the rubble and say "he saved us", it's hard to take that seriously given the entire city (and untold millions of lives) seem to have been lost in the meantime. This is not a film in which Superman (Henry Cavill) goes out of his way to save people's lives - at least outside of scenes where that is the express purpose (such as the oil rig and school bus bits near the start). And the aforementioned make-out with Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is even worse when you consider Superman has super hearing: surely he's kissing her whilst hearing the screams and tears of those trapped in the rubble?

For those that think I'm over-thinking that bit or (heaven forbid!) "taking it too seriously", I remind you that Snyder's film - created with 'The Dark Knight' duo David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan - takes itself incredibly seriously, expending a lot of effort and energy creating a joyless, colourless vision of the hero and his world. A film in which young Clark Kent is bullied by stock movie jerks, when all he wants to do is quietly read Plato. And for a film that takes itself so seriously, it's really odd when it runs headlong into the cheesiest movie cliches - never more so than when Kevin Costner's Jonathan Kent (the film's one genuine triumph) dies trying to save the family dog from an incoming tornado.

Aside from the greatness that was the casting of Kevin Costner as a kindly, middle-American patriarch, Henry Cavill makes for a compelling Superman (speaking with authority but never arrogance) and you're never going to get better than Michael Shannon as an intense, shouty, slightly insane bad guy - but all of the above are wasted by the dreadful movie that surrounds them. It's got more in common with Michael Bay's 'Transformers' than Nolan's Batman: over-loud, tone-deaf, disaster porn and destruction occurring without conscience or consequence. In last years' 'Avengers', we similarly see an American metropolis beset by alien invasion and, whilst the city takes a bit of damage (though nothing on the scale here: it isn't reduced to a crater), there is also emphasis on the heroes saving people's lives and trying to limit that damage. The spectacle in that film comes from all the awesome things the good guys do as they save the day. By contrast, 'Man of Steel' puts emphasis on buildings being punched over as spectacle in and of itself, and Superman rarely comes out of this seeming heroic.

It being a bad movie in its own rite is bad enough, but 'Man of Steel' also makes it extremely difficult to see how DC/Warner Brothers can spin this out into an entire DC cinematic universe of movies, culminating in a Justice League team-up (featuring Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman et al). We've seen seen gritty Superman, and we know gritty Batman can work - and even gritty Green Arrow is currently doing the rounds on TV - but do we really now have to suffer through gritty Flash, gritty Aquaman, gritty Marsian Manhunter, gritty Shazam and gritty Wonder Woman? In the Marvel movies, which thrive on silver age, costumed spectacle and a sense of unabashed fun, it wouldn't be too strange for any character to turn up in all their weird and wonderful glory - a point born out by the in-production 'Guardians of the Galaxy': which features among its heroes a wise-ass, gun-toting Raccoon and an anthropomorphic tree. But with DC's movies to date, it's difficult to understand how this can work - and 'Man of Steel' poses more questions than answers in this regard.

It's also really difficult to see where the Superman franchise itself can go from here: a city got destroyed in this one, during a full-on invasion by dozens of soldiers with, basically, the same powers as Superman. That sounds like the final film in a trilogy, or the perfect scenario for that Justice League movie (with enough stuff going on to keep every hero occupied and necessary), but how can they top it with the next one in this series in terms of pure CGI-fueled spectacle? I'll say this for it: I'm intrigued to find out the answer, though I won't be surprised if the answer is even more explosions and an even higher body-count. Isn't the prevailing wisdom that sequels have to go bigger?

'The Great Gatsby' - Dir. Baz Luhrmann (12A)

This one's been out for ages, but I only found time to see it last week so I'll give my two-penneth a little late.

I haven't read Fitzgerald's celebrated novel - supposedly the masterpiece of American literature - so I can't speak with any authority on whether or not Baz Luhrmann's movie gets it right. But, for my taste, it's a vapid, tacky mess of a film, populated by underdeveloped, yet strangely hateful characters (is there anyone more simpering and with less agency than Tobey Maguire's Nick Carraway and Carey Mulligan's Daisy Buchanan?). A sickening, barely tolerable mix of hyper-active editing, overbearing music and a general busy-ness of aesthetic that drowns out all the details and is the enemy of subtlety. In some ways it feels like a Broadway musical stripped of its songs, and maybe a musical version would have been more watchable, but instead - with the exception of one character-driven scene: a climactic confrontation between Leonardo DiCaprio's Gatsby and Joel Edgerton's Tom - it's a total car crash.

It could be that these problems come straight out of the novel, but there are so many gaps in logic and reason that make this film infuriating. For instance, why is it claimed that nobody has ever seen Gatsby before, when he's constantly shown making the cover of national newspapers? Why are we told he NEVER comes to his lavish, celebrity-filled parties only moments before he makes an appearance at one such event? Why is Nick so instantly enamoured with Gatsby? What is it that Gatsby finds so appealing about the insipid Daisy? Why is it that Daisy and Tom's daughter - mentioned once in passing - doesn't feature at all? Why is it that Nick - the only character with a normal job - seemingly never has to go to work? Why is Jason Clarke's character totally fine with Tom seeing his wife (Isler Fisher) on the side? And why is he immediately enraptured by premeditated, homicidal rage towards a complete stranger when she's killed by accident? I imagine answers to these questions lie in the novel, but they certainly weren't apparent in the film. Which wouldn't really matter if the film was at least a little bit entertaining and not a flagrant abuse of your eyeballs.

And on the Jay-Z soundtrack - which litters the film with anachronistic modern R&B tracks from Beyonce and the like: I'm not inherently against that, even if I think the reasoning (let's show the kids that the excesses of the 1920s were similar to hip-hop culture today!) is spurious and superficial. But where that approach does become a problem is that it has the ultimate, unintended effect of giving the film a very short shelf-life: this is very much 2013's vision of 1925, and it's hard to see how that will have any value - or find much lasting favour - as we get further from the film's initial release.

'Much Ado About Nothing' - Dir. Joss Whedon (12A)

"Time goes on crutches till love have all his rites". Just one of many succinct and perfect lines in Shakespeare's play that really sing coming from the assembled cast of Joss Whedon regulars in this paired down adaptation of the bard. Directed by the 'Buffy' creator, with characteristic wit and lightness of touch, the film sees regular collaborators Amy Acker/Alexis Denisof/Tom Lenk (Buffy/Angel), Nathan Fillion/Sean Maher (Serenity), Clark Gregg/Ashley Johnson (Avengers), Reed Diamond/Fran Kranz (Dollhouse) in front of the camera, whilst brother and sometime writing partner Jed Whedon (Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along-Blog) contributes the soundtrack: it's a Whedonverse reunion - all shot on location at the director's Californian house, during downtime from production of 'The Avengers'.

If the idea of a group of wealthy, LA pals, shooting a black and white Shakespeare film whilst on holiday sounds like a recipe for a slightly self-indulgent and incestuous love-in, then it is at least one that works. Not only is 'Much Ado' a really heartfelt and sincere version of the play, featuring stunning performances from Acker and Kranz in particular, it's also riotously entertaining and laugh-out-loud funny in a way most probably won't associate with 17th century iambic pentameter. Without deviating substantially from the original play, Whedon has created something that feels fresh and modern and, in part due to the naturalistic delivery of his cast, is very easy understand for a contemporary audience - giving the old English verse a new lease of life.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Men of Steel - Sexism and the New Superman

From Zack Snyder - the director of the slightly rapey 'Sucker Punch' and nakedly homophobic, machismo-fest that is '300' - Superman reboot 'Man of Steel' is rightly getting a lot of flack from critics for being a terrible movie. I'll post my thoughts on it later in the week, when I get a chance, but today (on Father's Day, no less!) I wanted to write about one particular element that hasn't gotten much attention - and that's the film's abysmal treatment of female characters.

Forget for a moment that "Pulitzer prize winning" reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) - the film's only female with any agency whatsoever - only figures out one key plot point/survives an action scene because a hologram of a man literally tells her what to do, step-by-step. Or the fact that a female military officer only exists to say that Superman (Henry Cavill) is hot and to ask dumb questions in the many scenes of Richard Schiff-powered pseudo-science ("what is terraforming?"). Or the fact that the Daily Planet reporter trapped under rubble during one climactic action scene, is also (with crushing inevitability) a helpless lady. Or the cliche scene that sees Clark Kent come to the defense of a helpless waitress, suffering from unwanted male attention. Or the fact that the henchman of the villain we are most encouraged to want to see die is a woman, becoming the default enemy of "cool military guy #3". Forget all of that for a moment, because I want to talk about the parents.

What really bothered me was the film's relegation of Superman's mothers - alien and Earthling alike - to barely relevant supporting roles, whilst emphasising both fathers. A conscious decision highlighted by the fact that both men are played by high-profile leading men (Russell Crowe as Kryptonian Jor-El and Kevin Coster as Jonathan Kent), whilst the women are scarcely of the same high profile. Incidentally that's not to say they aren't of equal talent: the Academy Award nominated Diane Lane (who plays Martha Kent) and Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer (Lara Lor-Van - from whom Superman takes no part of his Kryptonian name) are both talented actors - but they aren't stars. They aren't required to be recognised or loved by the audience as soon as they appear, unlike Crowe and Costner who are expected to exude all the necessary paternal gravitas during the film's many father-son heart-to-hearts.

Comic book writer Mark Waid, author of the fantastic Superman origin story Birthright, penned his own fairly negative review of the film on his blog, after being left "heartbroken" by a midnight screening. But aside from his criticisms, he acknowledged with humility how Snyder's Christopher Nolan produced, David S Goyer scripted movie takes elements from his own telling of the origin story - from visual cues (like the transition from baby Kal-El's spaceship entering Earth's atmosphere to adult Clark Kent - not yet Superman - saving lives) to plot points (Lois Lane scouring the globe writing stories about Superman her editors don't want to publish) and whole chunks of dialogue. And this is true: the film does lift entire elements from Birthright to an almost distracting degree.

So it becomes very telling that when the film takes whole chunks of important dialogue and bonding moments between Clark and his mothers and gender swaps them in favour of male characters. For instance (and these are just a few examples gleaned from quickly flicking through the book again this morning)...

The history of the golden age of planet Krypton is depicted in the film - via a strange, metallic animated background - as quite a traditionally militaristic and very masculine affair. A page from birthright, below (shoddily photographed by me), shows the same historical events: but note ALL the warriors are female. It's a double-page spread and, as you might be able to make out, there's yet another female soldier in the bottom left-hand corner, on the fold. This isn't explicitly mentioned in the text - it's never commented on. It just seems to operate on the logic that Krypton is an alien planet, so who is to say they have adopted the same gender norms? Kudos to Waid and artist Leinil Yu.

Remember in the movie how Jonathan Kent tells Clark that he's the answer to the question of whether or not we're alone in the universe? In Birthright, guess who has that line:

That's right! It's mum. The same mum who, in the film, says and does practically nothing - aside from getting intimated by the bad guy (Michael Shannon's General Zod) and requiring rescue. After which she's completely forgotten about. In fact, Clark leaves her with a bunch of Zod's henchmen and doesn't ever go back to check on her. It's a miracle she survives, because movie Superman's priority in that scene seems to be "punch Zod" rather than "rescue mum".

In any case, Costner's Jonathan Kent gets all of Matha's key dialogue and character moments from Birthright - whilst retaining all his own - and the film is similarly skewed towards the male characters when it comes to the Krypton parents.

In the film, you may recall, it's Crowe's Jor-El who has the courage, scientific genius, emotional detachment and sense of perspective to send his baby son into space toward Earth, and off his doomed planet. Lara presses some buttons to initiate the launch, whilst Crowe has a pointless fist-fight with Zod (action! Please don't be bored kids!), but otherwise she's pretty passive and primarily ruled by emotion. And, when it comes to making the big decision, it's her who is portrayed as reluctant to send the baby into space - whilst Crowe is left to man-up and gets things done.

Here's how the exact same beat plays out in Waid's comic book (below):

That's right: the opposite way. Lara is the strong one, not ruled by emotion, with the courage and hope to send her son into the unknown, rather than leave him to certain doom with them on Krypton. It's Jor-El who wavers in a way that a male movie star apparently can't. Wouldn't that have been interesting in the film? But Russell Crowe had to be shown as the strong one who 1) got things done and 2) actually advanced the story. In the comic it's Lara who actually initiates the entire plot. In essence, she creates Superman as we know him, sending him to our world. And then, on Earth, it's Martha who helps create the man he becomes: the caring, selfless hero and saviour of mankind (incidentally the film makes it very clear - through the line "I'm as American as it gets" - that Superman belongs to the US and not to us). She encourages him and has unshakable faith in him, even whilst Jonathan gives air to doubt.

In fact, part of Martha's role in the comic book is in creating her son's costume and helping to fabricate his nebbish Clark Kent cover identity - both things rendered obsolete in this latest film adaptation, that presumably thought an outfit designed by the hero's mum wouldn't play as especially cool. Instead, in the film, the iconic outfit (or at least a muted and dour incarnation) is bestowed upon him by a holographic Jor-El. That's right: a long-dead father is more useful and relevant in this film than his living mother.

I bring the comic up for direct comparison because it seems clear it was a basis for much of what happens in 'Man of Steel' - and the gender swapping here seems consciously done in favour of the male characters. You can decide whether that's a symbol of patriarchy or the need to give Crowe/Costner more screentime, but either way, I hope you agree: it's pretty rubbish.

Oh and SPOILER WARNING!!!!!!!!!: the film's version of Martha Kent sends her husband INTO THE TORNADO THAT KILLS HIM in order to rescue the family dog. And she's not even shown to feel bad about that. She's a truly wretched character.

Review to follow.

Friday, 7 June 2013

'Populaire', 'A Hijacking', 'Fast & Furious 6', 'Behind the Candelabra' and 'The Iceman': review round-up

A bumper edition round-up this week, as I've not updated for a while. Been busy with other stuff, like hosting/writing the Hold Onto Your Butts film quiz at Komedia (in Brighton). Above is the latest of our picture rounds, as drawn by the excellent Joe Blann. Consensus is that this is the hardest of the picture rounds so far... I don't think anybody got the three point question!

'Populaire' - Dir. Regis Roinsard (12A)

Light, colourful and fluffy in a way that won't surprise those familiar with this brand of whimsical, middle-brow French comedy - 'Populaire' is an affable enough movie, mostly thanks to its supremely watchable leads: Deborah Francois as a clumsy, hapless secretary with a special gift for speed-typing and Roman Duris as her cold and competitive boss. Set in the late-50s, at a time when international typing competitions were apparently the hottest ticket in town, and a source of front-page news, it's a formula rom-com that's also equal parts 'Rocky' (with its heavy reliance on sports movie tropes), 'The Secretary' (in its power-imbalanced, sadomasochistic relationship between boss and employee) and 'Mad Men' (if only in its emphasis on the sartorial glamour of the period, as popularised by that TV show). It's chic and mildly diverting stuff, that provides a few gentle laughs - and just as many truly awful lines to go with its questionable gender politics.

'A Hijacking' - Dir. Tobias Lindholm (15)

An exceptional Danish thriller which takes an almost procedural approach to its realistic portrayal of modern day piracy, this is a tense, tightly-wound piece of filmmaking that explores what happens when a large freighter ship is commandeered by armed African pirates and its crew held for months on the open sea: a fate that's become increasingly common in the last decade. As the pirates haggle for ransom with the company that owns the ship, 'A Hijacking' follows both the struggles of the captured crew (mostly via Johan Philip Asbæk's traumatised cook) and the moral dilemmas facing those in the company board room - with Søren Malling's no-nonsense CEO taking a dangerously hands-on approach in negotiations, against the advice of a piracy expert (played with authority by real-life corporate security consultant Gary Skjoldmose-Porter).

Even-handed and intelligent, director Tobias Lindholm's film doesn't lay the blame at the feet of the corporation - it doesn't present the board as villains for not immediately caving in to all the pirates demands - and doesn't even really vilify the pirates (even if they are often quite frightening and capable of great violence). Instead it seems to simply present the experience as what it is: something terrifying and life-changing for everybody involved, right down the anxious families of those held captive. Malling's CEO is shown as a man under great pressure, who - though not subject to the appalling conditions of the ship's crew - has his life upended by events to a very similar degree. What the film doesn't do is explore any of the political or economic conditions that have made piracy increasingly common, but that's the subject for a preachier, less visceral movie: one potentially less devastating, shocking and emotional.

'Fast & Furious 6' - Dir. Justin Lin (12A)

I haven't seen any of the other films in this increasingly popular series, but I understand the franchise used to be about street racing - something that, save a pointless, mid-film diversion, doesn't really factor in this straight-up action movie. It's all shooting and punching and making things explode, whilst cops hire criminals to catch worse criminals - in a plot that involves some McGuffin weapon that, if sold to an unfriendly nation, could mean war and stuff. It doesn't really matter. What matters is Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson is in it, along with franchise mainstays Vin "The Mumbling" Diesel and Paul "Who Is This Guy" Walker. They drive fast and incredibly shiny cars - and they do ridiculous, physics defying things in the name of punching the bad dudes, scoring with chicks in hot-pants and safeguarding their "family".

That particular F-word gets bandied about a lot here, as the film goes to great lengths to show that it's actually a deeply emotional drama about a group of friends with feelings and character arcs such - just like in a real film. But it isn't and, frankly, it'd be better if they didn't bother pretending otherwise. The film is far more fun when tanks are crushing cars on a Spanish highway than when it's about gruff, musclemen explaining how they've got "to set things right" for some wrong committed five films ago that nobody remembers. Just explode more stuff already. Especially as the film's attempts to have anything approaching a plot always backfire, as our heroes repeatedly interrogate enemies in order to find out stuff they already knew - and one character even travels to another continent, has himself put in prison and very nearly dies, trying to unearth knowledge the rest of the gang seemingly already posses back in England. Very odd.

It's also amusing that nearly every scene in the first half of the film follows the exact same formula: a group of our heroes are ridiculed by unnecessarily rude people after asking a polite question, and respond by beating up everybody in the room. The message seems to be: don't mock Vin Diesel... he's, like, really strong and he'll probably smash your face in until you're unconscious. It's a difficult message to argue with, but it isn't revelatory, even to a 'Fast & Furious' series newcomer like myself. Don't pick on people with big muscles for no apparent reason, y'all.

In all seriousness, it's hard to get over how brazenly sexist this film is in order to sit back and enjoy the popcorn. It's all gyrating women in bikinis, dancing around cars, whilst our protagonists watch and say "damn", possibly whilst bumping bro-fists. At one point a character explains that cars are better than women because "when you trade up for a better model they don't take half your shit". This isn't an ironic statement and it says a lot about who these douche bag characters are and who they think this film is for. The Rock admittedly has a really appealing screen presence - self-aware and charming - but the rest of the lunk-heads that make up the cast, including a sadly under-utilised Gina Carano, are just grunting meat-puppets. Aside from a couple of jaw-droppingly ridiculous set pieces, this is a film that could have been gloriously trashy and over-the-top - in a way that compensated you for the aforementioned stupidity of it all - but ended up merely being a bit dull.

'Behind the Candelabra' - Dir. Steven Soderbergh (15)

Following his supposed "last ever film" - 'Side Effects', released earlier this year - Steven Soderbergh returns to cinemas with this blackly comic and extremely bleak portrait of glamorous entertainer Liberace, which focuses on the famously closeted pianist's peculiar relationship with a man named Scott Thorson, upon whose recollections the film is based. A TV movie in the US, produced by HBO after studios reportedly rejected the film as "too gay" to be commercial, 'Behind the Candelabra' is the fruit of a long-running passion project of the prolific director and sees Michael Douglas and Matt Damon deliver brilliant performances as Liberace and Thorson respectively. Douglas in particular is in inspired form, with his turn potentially career-defining, seemingly coming out of nowhere. In many ways his performance is the obvious joy and appeal of the film, with Liberace an outrageous, larger than life figure, so credit must also go to Damon for being the emotional center that gives meaning to all the mincing.

Even as it follows Liberace in his twilight years, with his peak decades behind him, the film manages to show us the highs and lows of his life: giving us glimpses of his performances on Vegas stages, in front of adoring fans, as well as showing us the loneliness and pitiful sadness born of that mix of hyper-fame/wealth and keeping such a large aspect of his life a (admittedly poorly kept) secret. He's a paranoid figure and a man with few (arguably no) real friends - or meaningful connections of any kind, beyond the revolving door of pretty boys that he keeps in his "palatial kitsch" mansion. We can only speculate about how close to reality the film gets, being based on the memoirs of a man who unsuccessfully sued Liberace, but the film is quite perfect at plunging the viewer headlong into the despair and loneliness we can imagine comes with extreme celebrity.

Where the film really excels is in its portrayal of the power imbalance shown in the relationship between Thorson and his self-described "father, brother, lover and best friend" Liberace. This has a universal quality, as Thorson - so in thrall to, and financially dependent on his partner - has almost no agency. He is in a precarious position, and is all too aware of that fact, which means he is to a certain extent unable to resist much of his cruel and often abusive treatment. He's a man who offers and gives so much to his lover but whose contributions are overlooked and frequently denied the moment there's an argument - a situation that's probably familiar to many. It's this transcendent bit of drama, along with Soderbergh's hauntingly sterile cinematography, the black wit of the script and the fine central performances, that means the film stands up very well next to the director's other minor masterpieces of recent years.

'The Iceman' - Dir. Ariel Vromen (15)

An impressive cast - lead by the intensely watchable Michael Shannon - doesn't stop this "based on a true story" biopic about a notorious hitman from being deadly dull. Basically, it's the tale of a guy who murders hundreds of people in cold blood - seemingly because he has a cold detachment that renders him indifferent to human life, brought on by an abusive childhood and lapsed Catholicism - but who's alright really because he doesn't want anything bad to happen to his young daughters. That's about the depth of it. Chris Evans and David Schwimmer are nearly unrecognisable in supporting roles, which is at least mildly interesting, but otherwise we have Ray Liotta as the schlubby, unpredictable head of an Italian crime family and Winona Ryder as the shiny-eyed innocent who doesn't know where her husbands money comes from. Maybe it's a victim of art imitating life, but it's a story we've seen played out a million times before, and with a lot more vigour and imagination.

For a movie about a contract killer, there's no style or panache to how he does his business. Some key "hits" occur off-screen and most are left to montage - with the only exception being a hit on James Franco, which many may find cathartic in the wake of his extreme over-exposure. This is fine if we aren't being sold the crime as glamour bit we usually get in mob movies, but the film offers nothing compelling in its place. The only consequence to violence and a life of crime that we see is that, eventually, people might be violent towards you and your loved ones. Aside from that it's a passionless film with nothing to offer.