Man of Steel

This film is Highlander.

Essentially, story structure-wise, it is Highlander.

This was all very distracting to me while watching the film. Even the transitions felt like Highlander transitions. He sees a school bus and then he remembers something involving a school bus. And it wasn’t just the flashbacks either. Lois investigating the “mystery man” and all the clues eventually leading her to track him down was all very similar to Brenda’s hunt for Connor in Highlander. I am not reaching for a comparison here. After the film’s second transition to a memory of the past, all I could think was “this is Highlander”.

Obviously it wasn’t all Highlander. The fight scenes didn’t involve any decapitations or Quickenings which is a good thing for a Superman movie. Though, if you accept Highlander 2 as a film that does in fact exist, then the Immortals in those films are from another planet. And so are Superman and Zod. The comparisons are uncanny!!!

But in all seriousness, though Man of Steel was a valiant effort on the part of filmmaker Zack Snyder and scriptwriter David S. Goyer, this was not what I wanted in a Superman movie. Perhaps it’s my fault as I have a lot of baggage with the character. I have been a Superman fan since I was a kid, reading comics from the early 70’s, and watching re-runs of the Superman TV show from the 50’s. So when I saw the Richard Donner film, Superman: The Movie, it was pretty much all I ever wanted in a Superman movie. It is still my favorite Superman movie. Superman should be an amiable fellow, always seeing the good in people, fighting for truth, justice and the American way. Superman: The Movie embodies those elements completely. It’s a perfect Superman movie. It’s the perfect comic book movie.

Man of Steel, however, is not a comic book movie. Every frame of this film is trying to ground the character and the story in reality. That is not Superman. The story is about a superhero from another planet who is powered by our yellow sun. He is weakened and could die from exposure to Kryptonite. He can fly, he has heat vision, he has x-ray vision, and he has super strength. Nothing about this character should be grounded in reality. That is not the point of this character. The filmmakers were trying to do to Superman what Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer did to Batman. The problem with doing this is that Batman was already a very grounded character; he has no superpowers. He’s just a regular dude who has trained himself to be in peak physical condition, he has a genius-level intellect, and has gadgets and tools to help him fight crime. You can take that and make a serious, dark film out of the character. It’s been done in the past in both comic books and film. It’s a valid take on the character. Not so with Superman.

Superman was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, both of whom were sons of immigrants. The character of Superman is essentially an immigrant and he’s supposed to be proud of that. He embraces American life and values and doesn’t care that he’s not from this planet. His parents are Jonathan and Martha Kent. He loves his family. He is not a bitter, angsty, introverted teenager who is afraid of his abilities. To make him this way in the film is a huge disservice to the character. The way the character is when he first learns how to fly in this movie is the way he should have been his whole life, not just for the second half of the script. This was very disappointing to me.

The film wasn’t all bad, however. The opening scene on Krypton was great. It gave some good backstory on Krypton, good character development from Jor-El and Lara( Superman’s parents), and Zod’s introduction was very well done. It definitely set up the story well and it’s too bad the film didn’t have more of that level of writing. In fact, it felt like 50% of the dialogue in the film was all from the first 15 minutes of the movie. It felt almost as if Russell Crowe (Jor-El) has more lines of dialogue than Superman does. Actually, it felt like every major character had more lines of dialogue than Superman did.

Pa Kent is also uncharacteristic as Pa Kent in this film. After young Clark is seen saving some other children, he asks his father “what was I supposed to do? Let them all die?” to which Pa Kent replies “Maybe”. No. Never in a million years would Jonathan Kent tell his son Clark to not save someone if he can. I really hated that scene. That’s not how Clark would be raised. The writers just did that so they can have this powerful emotional scene where Clark has to make a tough decision on whether or not to let someone die or save them and reveal his secret to the world. More angst for a character that should have none. It’s a major disservice to both characters.

If the first half of the movie was mostly character development and drama, the second half was mostly action. A lot of fighting. A lot of punching.  A lot of Kryptonians knocking each other into and through buildings. There are trucks and trains and other vehicles of note thrown around with reckless abandon. There is also a lot of collateral damage done to said buildings and vehicles and people. I’m really curious what the body count ended up being after what felt like an hour of on-screen super-powered fisticuffs. It really did not feel as if Superman saved a lot of people in this movie. He saves the world, obviously, which contains a lot of people, but it really feels like the population count in Metropolis plummeted precariously during the pugilistic pandemonium.

So, in short, this movie was just not what I wanted from a Superman film. Superman shouldn’t be dark in tone, he shouldn’t have regret or angst over not knowing his parents or his inability to come to terms with his abilities. That’s just not the character I grew up reading and watching on television and film. They take too many liberties with the character and the movie suffers for it. One final issue I have with the movie  is also the reuse of Zod. And not only that but with all the Lexcorp logos strewn about on various buildings and trucks, I have a feeling the antagonist for the next film will be Lex Luthor. I am sick of Lex Luthor. I am sick of Zod. Between all five Superman films, we have seen exactly two super villains between them: Lex Luthor and Zod. I am sick of these villains. Superman has a large rogues gallery in which to draw on. They could do movies with Brainiac, Metallo, Bizarro, Solomon Grundy, Mr. Mkyzptlk, Darkseid, Toyman, or Doomsday, for example. The possibilities are endless! Yet, we’re still stuck with the same two super villains over and over and over again.

So, I end this review with a plea for the filmmakers: please don’t make Lex Luthor the villain in the next one. Please use somebody else. Brainiac would be a brilliant villain for Superman on film. The closest we ever got to Brainiac was the super computer designed by Richard Pryor in Superman III. In point of fact, I assume in the original script that computer was supposed to be Braniac but then someone decided to have Richard Pryor build it instead. If there is one positive thing I took away from Man of Steel, it was that at least it was a vastly superior movie to Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Even if this wasn’t the Superman film I wanted, it could have been much much worse.

Now You See Me

Okay, here’s the thing…

If you turn your brain off while watching Now You See Me, you may really enjoy it. It has a fun story, flamboyant characters, some nice visuals, decent action scenes, and a bit of romance as well. However, after the movie is over, eventually your brain will turn back on and the more you think about it, the less the film will hold up under scrutiny. Which, I guess, is part and parcel for a film about magic considering that magic works best when you are deceiving the audience. Just like this movie.

Before I get into that though, a bit about the characters. Jesse Eisenberg plays an egocentric magician. Isla Fisher plays an egocentric magician. Woody Harrelson plays an egocentric mentalist. James Franco’s brother plays an egocentric magician. Morgan Freeman plays an egocentric debunker of magicians. Michael Caine plays an egocentric financier of magicians. Mark Ruffalo plays FBI Agent Dylan Rhodes and Mélanie Laurent plays Interpol Agent Alma Dray. These are all the main characters. None of them are really “supporting actors” unless you consider the whole cast nothing but supporting actors. The bottom line is none of them stand out as the sole protagonist of the story. In fact, if there was one, it would probably be Mélanie Laurent’s character as she is the only person in this story who is even somewhat likable. Every single one of the Four Horsemen (the four previously mentioned egocentric magicians) is a jerk and not likable in any way. Michael Caine’s character isn’t particularly likable. Morgan Freeman’s character is a giant smart-ass. Even Mark Ruffalo’s character, who we are supposed to be somewhat sympathetic towards, is pretty selfish, kind of mean, and yells a lot for no apparent reason. I kept expecting him to turn into The Hulk at some point.

For me, I can’t be interested in a movie if there is no clear protagonist, especially one that’s not likable. It’s the reason I can’t watch Wes Anderson movies. For some reason his films are full of completely unlikable characters, none of whom I want to or can root for. Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman play a couple of completely unlikable jerks fighting over a woman in Rushmore. Normally I would root for the woman in the film to just spurn both these guys and tell them to leave her alone, but no, she’s not particularly likable either. And let’s not forget The Royal Tenenbaums which contains not a single entity that could be considered a decent human being. I couldn’t make it a half-hour into that picture before turning it off in disgust. So clearly if there’s no clear-cut protagonist, it’s difficult for a film to hold my interest. The only reason this one did was mostly because it focused on the FBI and Interpol agents and not the smug magicians and the rest of their ilk. In fact, I was rooting for the police to catch those annoying twerps.

To explain why this film lies to the audience would require me to spoil the movie. And I don’t want to do that. Suffice it to say, when the mystery of the so-called “fifth horseman” is revealed, some people sitting near me in the theater couldn’t believe it. And I couldn’t either. The main reason is because at times the movie showed this character acting just like the character they were portraying and not as the character they were even when said character wasn’t being observed by any other character in the film. Ah, but you see, WE were watching. The audience. And we can’t have a character living a double life act suspiciously or our clever twist at the end will be revealed. So even when this person isn’t in view of the other characters, they were still acting like they were being observed. Magicians would call this misdirection, which is apropos for a film about magic. I suppose the screenwriters thought they were being clever writing a script that is essentially one huge magic trick. Another problem is a lot of the magic they showed was film illusion. One time Isla Fisher’s character throws out a scarf that starts swirling around and getting bigger and bigger until it reveals a magical apparatus. That can’t happen in real life. They needed to use a visual effect to make it look like that. There were these cards that once brought together became translucent and iridescent and even began to glow. Hogwash. Or should I say ‘Hogwarts’, because that is some Harry Potter level sorcery going on right there. So the least they could’ve done is be honest with the audience. But they weren’t and that’s a problem for me.

Overall, I would say the film is entertaining. It tells an extravagant story and is a lot of fun to watch. The problem is just that the film as a whole isn’t as good as a few of its parts. If they had just been a bit more honest about certain character’s motivations, I think it would have worked better. So I can only really give the film a marginal recommendation. It’s worth seeing for the spectacle, just not the story.

Now You Don’t

The Purge

The Purge is based on the ridiculous premise that in order to curtail unemployment, poverty and violent crime America has become a new nation where, once a year, the citizenry is allowed to commit any crime they choose in a 12-hour period, including murder. This notion is just silly. And I think the film knows it because they include commentary in the background on television news programs where some people are against The Purge because it just means those who have money can afford security as well as weapons while the poor, destitute and homeless cannot and they constitute a vast majority of the victims during this night of free crime. Well, duh…

In fact, a few characters later on in the film even explicitly say that one of their intended victims is nothing but a “homeless pig”. That’s pretty telling. So any social commentary you find in this film is bashed over your head constantly in order for them to make their point. However, regardless of the silliness of the premise, the suspense in the film is actually pretty well done even though most of it is the result of characters acting stupidly for no apparent reason. I mentioned lazy writing in an earlier review and said one of the symptoms of lazy writing is that characters will do something completely out of character just so the plot can progress and conflict can ensue. That is par for the course in The Purge.

It’s not all bad however. Like I said earlier, the suspense is good. The acting is great, especially by Ethan Hawke (Gattaca) and Lena Headey (Dredd). And I gotta say, the casting in this film for the antagonists was pretty much perfect. I have a feeling the casting call read something like this: “WANTED: 18-22 year old actors and actresses for suspense thriller. Looking creepy as **** a plus!” The cinematography was good too using security camera footage to increase the suspense at key moments.

Overall, I would say the film is a pretty fun ride. I personally didn’t find it scary, but the primarily teen-to-twenties audience I saw it with did seem to scream a lot and when there was a particularly gory incident the crowd did seem to get a bit unsettled by it. If you’ve read my Evil Dead review you should know that I relish that kind of stuff and though there wasn’t a lot of gore, the gorehound inside of me felt pretty satisfied given the fact that I really wasn’t expecting much of it at all in this film, regardless of the advertised subject matter.

There was also a very fun, darkly comical scene near the end of the movie that was probably my favorite part of the film. In fact, it was after that scene happened where I realized that this film does sort of suffer from a personality disorder. The first act feels like it’s trying to be a social commentary; the second act, a taut suspense thriller; the third act was sort of an action movie with a few bits of dark humor thrown in. If they had just chosen one of those to focus on for the whole film, I think it could’ve ended up as a far better movie. I do think the film is worth seeing, but perhaps not at full price. I would say it’s worth a matinee price or wait for home video.