Friday, June 21, 2013

Half-Baked 'Man of Steel' is Both Awesome and Annoying

If half the battle is not looking silly in the suit, Henry Cavill
was pretty set from the get go.
Thus far, Man of Steel has sharply divided audiences. It currently rates rotten on Rotten Tomatoes, and yet it garnered an A- CinemaScore. Some, like HitFix’s Drew McWeeny, have passionately argued its merits, while others like Ryan Silberstein, our friend over at Filmhash, have criticized the film for having a lack of substance.

That diversity of opinion seems appropriate to me, since I somehow found the film to be simultaneously infuriating and delightful. The reason for that is simple – nearly every major story impulse by the creative team (including director Zack Snyder, producer Christopher Nolan, and screenwriter David Goyer) comes across as a bold and laudable choice that somehow got mucked up in the execution. 

Take, for instance, the film’s main thematic drive, which basically concerns two things – the ability to choose your destiny and the question of what the world will make of Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman (Henry Cavill) once he is revealed. 

On Krypton, where citizens are engineered for very specific purposes, Kal-El’s father Jor-El (Russell Crowe) predicts his son will choose his own destiny and that the people of Earth will embrace him as a guiding god and symbol of hope. On Earth, adoptive father Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) also believes Clark will choose what type of man he will become and that, whatever that decision is, it will change the world. However, unlike Jor-El, he is afraid about how the world will respond to a super-powered alien being.

So I get that Lois Lane is assisting the army and all, but why do 
they give her a jumpsuit?
Much of this framework is laid very carefully, but then laziness sets in and the story begins to lose its grip. A devastating tragedy results from Jonathan Kent’s insistence that Clark keep his powers hidden, and Costner plays the hell out of it, but the whole situation leading up to that moment is such inorganic horseshit, that it undercuts the importance of what should be a pivotal moment for our hero. 

Ultimately, Clark is forced to out himself to the public because of the ultimatum proposed by chief villain General Zod (Michal Shannon), a Kryptonian he knows to have killed his birth father, which sort of defangs the whole choice thing. To be fair, he does get to choose how he responds, opting for the Jesus-like choice to put his faith in human kind, and the captive sequence that follows is one of the best (and most charming) parts of the movie.

Unfortunately, the film then quickly becomes an endless barrage of action, and it never truly explores the question of if this super-powered god will be accepted by Earth’s inhabitants, which is odd given just how much time is spent setting it up. Having seen the finished product, it seems the movie may have been better served by further leaning into the whole Christ analogy it pushes. I’m not saying this film needed its own version of the crucifixion and resurrection, but simply a little time showing humanity’s response to Superman and what to do with/about him. Sacrificing ten minutes of action to do so would’ve made for a better movie.

Having said that, the action is the most noteworthy thing about the picture, and what’s on display here is some of the best spectacle you’re likely to see on film. The sheer scale is mindboggling and the ambition is commendable. Man of Steel opens with a visually imaginative (and surprisingly substantive) sequence in Krypton and it ends with a 40-minute throw-down action sequence that is awe-inspiring in its depiction of collateral damage, which a consulting firm recently estimated would result in $700 billion in physical damages, one million injured victims and over 100,000 deaths.

There's a good drinking game to be made based around
product placement in this movie.
The film has been criticized for featuring a Superman that allows such destruction, but, while I thought the action was a bit overlong, I found it to be a refreshingly “realistic” depiction of how a fight between super aliens would play out. That said, the film definitely would’ve worked better if the filmmakers had shown Superman’s sense of horror at what was happening around him. If they had, the climactic moment in the train station would’ve carried a lot more heft. Instead it’s almost a joke.*
*For those counting, that makes two extremely important and emotional moments for the lead character that are totally undermined by the immediate lead up to them.
Then, of course, there’s the way the film has revised the whole approach to Lois Lane. Here, it’s actually believable that Lois (Amy Adams) is a crack investigative journalist, because she’s not depicted as a dummy who doesn’t realize she’s working side-by-side a fellow reporter who looks just like the superhero she spends so much time with. Instead she’s a smart, driven reporter who, after getting her life saved by a super-powered mystery man, begins to methodically trace his tracks and discover the truth.

Once she does, Lois gets three solid scenes with Clark –one where he explains why he doesn’t want her to expose him to the world, one where she interviews him as army officials watch on, and one where she comforts him in a moment of total anguish after the train station climax. They’re all strong moments, but because of how much little interaction they have besides that, the romance angle that gets grafted onto the story seems a giant miscalculation. The film does a good job of showing how she could fall for him, but not vice versa, and so the kiss moment rings false. More restraint would’ve been wise, as the three aforementioned scenes would’ve made strong foundation pieces for romance exploration in a sequel where she (and we) will assumedly learn more about the Clark Kent side of Kal-El.

The film offers what are arguably definitive takes on
Superman, Lois Lane and Jor-El. Zod? Not so much.
There are so many more pluses and minuses in this film that I could go on and on. I understand it’s something necessary with a big film like this, but the record-breaking product placement was a little much for my taste. However, one thing I’ll give the filmmakers – they got the casting right. Cavill brings a physicality to Superman that no other actor has before, while also offering a tremendous amount of confidence and benevolent warmth. It’s a star-making performance, and, although he’s been around for a while, after his work here, I expect a lot of doors will open for him.

Adams, Crowe, Costner, and Christopher Meloni (as a Detective Stabler-like army guy) all provide great work, with Costner being best in show. In fact, given the amount of time spent exploring the motivations of Crowe’s Jor-El, more time with Costner’s Jonathan probably would’ve been welcome for balance sake.  Meanwhile, Zod has a refreshingly complex and relatable motivation for what he’s doing, and they’ve cast a great actor in the role, but the whole thing is brought down a peg by some convoluted business concerning a genetic codex and Shannon’s decision to dial everything up to 11. Like Crowe, Shannon is saddled with a lot of expository dialogue, but unfortunately, he doesn’t come across nearly as well.

Overall, I’m more positive on the film than negative, but I feel like I can’t really judge the thing until the inevitable sequel arrives. If that sequel builds on what’s here and further explorers the notions of how Earth is responding to this guy, the film may seem better in hindsight. But right now Man of Steel seems a collection of good ideas and standout moments enveloped in a half-baked film. B

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Changing Up the Formula Proves Problematic for 'The Hangover Part III'

The Hangover Part III misguidedly turns Chow into a lead and becomes a
heist movie.
In the lead up to The Hangover Part III, director Todd Phillips defended the preceding entry in the series to Empire, saying "Yes we do a wake-up and a blackout, but every joke in Hangover II is completely different. My feeling is that it's better [than the first movie]. I think it's human nature that any time people want to try something for a second time, people go to a negative. I think in five or ten year's time, people will come to realize how brilliant Hangover II is." 

Before commenting on the specifics of such a comment, I should mention that I concur with Forbes contributor Scott Mendelson’s assessment that it is refreshing to see a filmmaker stand by his film, as opposed to shitting on it as a way to sell the next one as an improvement.

Having said that, I do believe most of what Phillips says is nonsense. The second movie is not better than the first, and a majority of the jokes are pointedly the same (as shown in this Vulture piece). For that reason, Phillips was lambasted for making a lazy carbon copy of the original, instead of trying to evolve the story and do something different.

The Hangover Part III seems to be a direct answer to that criticism.  Although Doug (Justin Bartha) is left to the side once again, the movie attempts to switch up the formula. The lead trio is not drugged and they do not spend the movie trying to piece together what happened the night before (despite the title, there is no hangover). Instead, the minor role of Chow (Ken Jeong) is beefed up and action and heist elements are grafted onto the story.

Melissa McCarthy lends the film some much needed humor in her few scenes.
All of this proves a massive misstep. As Community has already proven, Jeong is best used in small doses, and yet here, he’s arguably co-lead with Zach Galifianakis. In fact, the first five minutes of the movie are spent with him, and he is the catalyst for the entire plot, which finds our heroes caught in the middle of his feud with a gangster (John Goodman) over $42 million in gold bars.

Making matters worse, the film is rarely funny, occasionally saccharine and often infuriating. Watching Phil (Bradley Cooper) and Stu (Ed Helms) attempt to discover what happened during a crazy night with Alan (Galifianakis) as an oddball tagalong is a good time. Watching them constantly being outsmarted by a crazy psychopath like Chow, only to feel sympathy for him even though they know he’s a double-crossing murderer? Not so much.

Having seen Part III, I find myself appreciating the second film more than I originally did. While I wouldn’t go so far as to call it brilliant, it is a funny film, and there is something to be said for the way it unashamedly mimics the first one, while simultaneously escalating the events and self destruction to gonzo, nightmarish heights. It’s a sequel that almost plays like a remake, albeit one with more money and more freedom to go full hog. In that way, it’s sort of like Evil Dead 2.

Meanwhile, outside of a few random bits of awkward inanity from Galifianakis, Part III is a just a limp exercise. It’s telling that the biggest laughs come courtesy of a 90-second credit sequence that offers an intentionally derivative glimpse of a morning after hangover following another night of revelry. Hangover films work better with a hangover. Go figure. D+