Month: June 2013

Writer’s Shock: Struck by Lightning

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I watched Ryan Murphy’s Glee for too long. Realistically, it was probably for about three and a half seasons. One of their most problematic characters was their most charismatic: Kurt Hummel, the all caps GAY character in the ensemble was played with snark and what could only be some autobiographical pain by Chris Colfer. (He sadly is, was, and always will be a lousy stereotype incapable of carrying a dramatic story line that doesn’t have to do with him being gay.) Colfer has, in recent “years”, added writer and screenwriter to his resume, with the release of a children’s fantasy book and the release of the film Struck by Lightning. What could Colfer possibly add to the “angsty, sarcastic, alienated teens desperate to get out of high school” sub-genre? Not much, really.

Struck by Lightning concerns the life of Clover, California resident (against his will, no doubt) Carson Phillips as he blackmails his way into being admitted to Northwestern University, by way of the creation of a school literary magazine. Meanwhile, his mother (Alison Janney) is falling apart, his grandmother is suffering from dementia, and the father who abandoned him (Dermot Mulroney) is about to get married to a lovely young pharmacist (January Jones). And no one really wants to be a part of his club anyways.

A lot of it feels very autobiographical, in a slightly Woody Allen-esque sense (and Allen would be quick to deny any of his work is based on his life). Colfer grew up in a small town, Clovis, California; he was president of the Writing Club, which no one went to (much like in the film); and he was basically an outsider. If he was bullied in high school, he clearly has some words to say to them, manifested in the form of bitter, sardonic, slightly pious, acerbic Carson.

In essence, the story is fairly conventional. But I suppose you can say that Colfer’s voice is kind of unique. The biting one liners are often clever, but there’s so much resentment underneath the sarcasm that it does a mediocre job walking the fine line between clever and just mean spirited. Years ago, an acquaintance of mine had an AOL scree name “ClevernessofMe”, and if Carson were to have a Twitter handle, it would probably be that. So much of the humor in the film is funny, and Colfer’s delivery is spot on, but it doesn’t translate as well as it should on screen. When insulting the low-IQ peers around him, it sounds like that these zingers would be better fit to an essay or even a blog. It’s no wonder why people dislike him or are totally apathetic about his club or literary magazine.

For, you see, it’s hard to gain sympathy from the audience when you are so judgment and self-righteous. Yes, there is some mild character development in the film, but very little of it concerns Carson’s own issues of his holier than thou attitude. Occasionally the jokes strain very hard to footing, which feels jarring. Perfectly enjoyable one liners, but at times, they seem like filler or that you can tell Colfer is trying very hard to be sardonic. Most of the time it works, but it also often works in a very self-aware way, which becomes an issue. It becomes irritating after a while and it ends up making his character hard to root for because he spends so much time zinging and not feeling.

That isn’t to say there isn’t emotion in the film. There is. And it is here where the film falls into the more conventional areas. Carson has dreams of becoming the editor of the New Yorker and contributing to a plethora of various reputable periodicals. That drive and desire to attain his dreams, and to get out of the small town that he wants nothing to do with, pretty much makes up the plot of a majority of teen films. The journalistic aspirations don’t make Caron or his story different, nor does the smarminess. We’ve seen that in anything from Easy A to Mean Girls, from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to any number of John Hughes films. It would not be an issue if the film did not bother to try to excavate new ground or tread the old ground like it was new, but it does, and does so without attempting to seem different. It just files along with the tropes of every other high school movie without bothering to standout.

Alison Janney is winning, though, as Caron’s mother. Her performance is, at least. The characterization, however, is problematic. As problematic as her son’s. Janney has always been solid in terms of her comic timing. She’s a sharp, smart actress, and she inhabits the world weary mother role extremely well, so no points off for her. Colfer’s characterization of her is odd though, and as a family unit, they’re not so much dysfunctional as they are a terrible example of a family unit in film. Colfer tries to balance the damaged and hurt Sheryl with the smart, “I know about this world” Sheryl, but it makes for an uneven characterization. It is hinted at that she might be an alcoholic with depression and anxiety issues. We get a couple glimpses at these manifestations, but they are, for the most part, played for laughs. Yet, Colfer feels the need to make her character as self-righteous as her son. Both of them butt heads continually throughout the film (as any mother/son pairing in real life), but we only see Carson being a smartass without seeing how “terrible” his mother is. We are never really given a reason why Caron is as cynical as he is in terms of his relationship with his mother. At the same time, Colfer tries to humanize her not by showing her actual struggles but through exposition as she talks with a doctor about abandonment and her various prescriptions. Instead of giving more insight into that, she’s seen warning her son and the young pharmacist about the disappointments in life. She knows better, just like her son.

Putting the two together is, thus, very strange and unsatisfying. What Colfer has written is two characters that are at once broken and self-loathing, but deeply narcissistic (especially in Carson’s case). It is probably their dignity that they don’t want to lose, but that nevertheless makes for bad writing.  It makes it so that there’s lack of emotional closure at the end of the film for Sheryl’s arc, and that makes the ending particularly painful.

But what Colfer does get right is the writing process. I can identify with Carson’s attitude, but more than that, I can identify with how Colfer describes writing. Somewhat sappily, it’s described as being “struck by lightning”; that satisfaction and rapid fire ability to produce something that’s in your head and put it on the page (or screen). Colfer is actually able to make that feel as real as anything in the film. For a character whose agenda is ostensibly to piss everyone else with his own humor, he does a magnificent job in inspiring everyone. But, before too long, it becomes overly sentimental. But those few, brief moments of legitimate greatness in the film, when he talks about writing, those are the best Colfer might ever produce.

However, as a “coming-of-age” film, it doesn’t quite work. Self-realization comes at the end of the film, but at what expense. Carson does very little to truly develop beyond his own shortsighted sour attitude. Yes, he’s “learned” something, but the “lesson” feels both heavy handed and yet too insubstantial to warrant its heavy handedness. Even when he is given the chance to make the leap into becoming a person who can be both independent as well as aware of other people’s needs, Carson regresses into being tart and affecting. That Carson and the rest of his peers (who barely develop too) and his mother are left in a fairly stagnant state and, as aforementioned, without the needed emotional closure that this film would inherently need to end it.

At its best, Colfer channels his resentment into clever one liners, but at its worst, the film comes off as self-righteous, self-aware, mean spirited, depressing, and a little conventional. Colfer is funny, sometimes too funny for his own good, and a lot of it would probably make a better novella than a feature length film. Colfer’s problems are less narrative based and primarily character based, essentially robbing his two most important characters of the necessary nuance. But Colfer, good at dialogue, pinpoints the appeal of writing, and on that, he deserves some credit. It does very little to add to the teen genre, but perhaps Colfer might be back with something better in a couple years. Once all that bitterness and sanctimoniousness has subsided, we’ll be as struck with his work as he is.

Zod of Carnage: Man of Steel

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In my last review, for Baz Lurhmann’s The Great Gatsby, I mentioned that I am occasionally guilty of having such loathing for a director, or someone of that ilk, that I will go into their film with a closed mind. Mind you, that doesn’t happen often, but it does happen once in a while. Surprisingly, I went into Man of Steel, the new Superman reboot, with a fairly open mind. Or rather, an apathetic and ambivalent one. Despite being directed by another one of my least favorite people, Zack Snyder, responsible for such putrid work as Sucker Punch and 300, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Or I didn’t really care one way or the other. Granted, by the one trailer I had watched months ago, the one touting Christopher Nolan’s involvement, I expected something thoughtful. Not necessarily because of Nolan’s part in the making of the film, but more because it has been the latest trend of rebooting superheroes to be more grim, contemplative, existential, etc. Therefore, it shocked me that my fairly neutral expectations were thrashed and destroyed, as if Superman himself had torn them apart. And not in a good way.

As with all reboots of the last decade or so, Man of Steel frames itself as an origin story, attempting to delve into Krypton, the origin of both Superman and Clark Kent, and Superman’s father situation. Thus, the plot results in Kent’s quiet, yet noticeable presence on earth, saving people left, right and center, and General Zod’s desire to capture the ever present Superman. General Zod was at one point the head of Krypton’s army, for the record. Meanwhile, Lois Lane is saved by a mysterious someone and is determined to track down the origin of her savior.

Man of Steel, perhaps at its core, feels like a poorly written lead in to what could be something far better. Like the bad TV movie that works as a prequel to the “fair to serviceable to maybe even good” TV series. Think Star Wars: The Clone Wars, that terrible 3D animated movie that ended up giving way to a pretty great animated television series. Well, at least we can hope. So much of the film feels like setup and so little of it feels like plot or anything worth really caring about. This, I feel, is screenwriter David S. Goyer’s fault, as well as co-story writer (but not screenwriter) Christopher Nolan’s fault. While watching the film, I could not believe that Nolan had anything to do with the story of Man of Steel, so I assumed that Goyer, who worked on Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, had written the screenplay alone (which he did, and it really shows). That Nolan was certainly a part of the story process causes me internal tension; I really like his Dark Knight Trilogy and I think it is, for the most part, a well told, well executed contemporary appropriation of the character. For some reason, that translation was not as smooth for Superman. In terms of Goyer’s screenwriting, the stakes, though they are allegedly high, never feel it.  I had a very hard time caring about what was going on, not because I am not a Superman enthusiast, but because there seemed to be very little actual plot. Although one should be able to sum up a plot in a few sentences, it’s actually quite hard to do with Man of Steel. Not because a lot is going on, but because you have to wrack your brain to remember if anything important happened anyways. Uh, was there a McGuffin? I don’t remember. And why was Zod doing this again? Huh?

Again, it was disheartening to see Nolan having a story credit, because it meant that he had to share some of the blame for how poor the story was. Goyer alone can take credit for the lousy dialogue, the bad exposition, and the fact that even simple ideas to the characters within context either don’t make sense or are not applied or appropriated in a logical way. (Remember that “terraforming” line? That dumb mistake could have easily been remedied by just having another character ask that question.)

As much as I admire ambition, ambition in and of itself does not a good movie make, and Man of Steel is no exception. Again, like Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, Man of Steel takes a slightly “throw ideas at the wall and see what sticks” way of attempting thematic exploration. It comes off even worse than The Dark Knight Rises, not only in the way that too many things are thrown at the wall, creating a lack of thematic cohesiveness, but that none of them stick. You have ideas about Superman’s deep loyalty to his parents, but then it’s never explored. Superman’s’ loyalty to mankind? Not explored. The freedom of choice in an individual’s future? Not explored. Adoption and what that does to one’s childhood/personal life? Not explored, only briefly, insensitively hinted at. (Speaking as an adopted child, I was kind of offended at this.) Carnage in the real world and its real world repercussions? Not explored at all.

This last one puzzled me. It does not surprise me at all that the film should employ 9/11 imagery; that’s what these new, brooding superhero movies do in order to make them contextually relevant. But the film doesn’t actually make the environment within the film anymore contemporary than Richard Donner’s 1978 film with Christopher Reeve. Yes, both Smallville and Metropolis are clearly in the modern world. There’s modern technology. And there’s even product placement. (I’m currently waiting for an ad telling me to buy the Nikon D3S, the camera that Lois Lane uses! And then gets smashed!) But none of the surroundings do so much as to make that texture of the setting like a real, modern place. The closest it comes to ever achieving that is an ominous message from General Zod that is sent via television: it’s static-y, the tracking is off, and a couple people whip out their smart phones. But what does that say about the people of this universe? Pretty much nothing. What Nolan was able to do with his Dark Knight Trilogy was to make Gotham City an “anywhere metropolitan area” that doubled as one that was distinctly set in a pretty specific time bracket, with its politics, technology, villainy, and, yes, its hero. But the Dark Knight was also able to transcend time and, while taking on the role of a rather Right Wing iconography, make his hero relevant regardless of setting. Man of Steel fails to do that. He is stuck in a limbo. Looking at just the setting, you wouldn’t really be able to distinguish it from any other time. This seems to be less of a comment of the “Good Ol’ American Way” (which would be kind of Superman-like), the jingoistic notion that the United States is some sort of rural area that remains nameless, and more just lack of texture and substance. Its 9/11 imagery, through the loudness of its sonic qualities and its blatant compositions, is the only thing that is “contextually relevant” in the film, but none of the rest of the film actually justifies this or backs it up. Instead, we’re left with a gross, unsettling image of destruction, and a whole lot of irresolution and lack of closure. The question is: is that the fault of Goyer or is it Snyder?

I don’t care for Zack Snyder. I don’t care for his cinematography. I don’t care for his pseudo-feminist ideas. I don’t care for the fact that he needs to use slow motion in everything. I don’t particularly care for the fact that he had to drain his best film of political subtext. I think he’s serviceable, but he is certainly not someone I would watch for pleasure. Sort of like Tarsem Singh in a way, he’s a visualist, enchanted by the image so much that he sometimes (or kind of often) forgets that the image must contain context and meaning that adds to the whole. His compositions are sometimes very nice, very entrancing, but they’re good in small, maybe music video sized portions. A two and a half hour film? Not so much. That said, Snyder’s direction for the film wasn’t inherently horrific, but neither was it particularly good. The trailer (which, I know, is an arbitrary bar to compare to) presented Man of Steel with the cinematography and “tone poem-ness” of Terrence Malick, and, to be quite honest, I wouldn’t have been surprised if that was the direction he would have gone in: everyone loves copying Malick. But, Snyder didn’t go the Malick route; he went the “I don’t own a SteadiCam, so I’m going to walk around and occasionally compose somewhat nice screen grabs, but never create a fulfilling or terribly consistent aesthetic” route. Even the action sequences, which are deliriously edited, lack the necessary cohesion that it takes to make a great action film. Snyder’s work here is neither breathtaking nor abhorrent and instead settles into the forgettable, which is a disappointment. Even the grotesque videogame aesthetic of Sucker Punch was at least memorable, even if it wasn’t very “good”.

The purpose of a reboot is ostensibly to garner a wider audience while retaining the built in fan base. That may mean that you have to build from the ground up, but with the brooding, thoughtful superhero films of late, from Iron Man 3 to The Dark Knight, character construction and illustration are at the top of importance. It is such a disappointment, therefore, that the characters seem so flat throughout the film. Henry Cavill may be distractingly handsome, a man so masculine that not even his new super suit can contain his chest hair, but he lacks the real charisma and pathos that this kind of reboot calls for. That may be asking a lot, but Cavill, at times, plays Clark Kent like a hotter, but more wooden Christopher Reeve. What made Reeve’s performance interesting, regardless of the camp tone of the film, was that his was able to very easily transition from the affability of Kent, the vulnerability of Kal-El, and the decisive power of Superman. When Cavill is able to do any of these things or ever bring his own to the character, it isn’t with the same assurance or confidence. It seems almost self-conscious. It feels like he knows he’s playing Superman, making him question his instincts. (Cavill is also distractingly handsome, but I think I already mentioned that.)

Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner play Superman’s fathers; the former is Jor-El, Superman’s biological father, and the latter is Jonathan Kent, his adopted father. Despite their presence in the film, the paternal relationships of Superman are actually poorly executed. There’s less of a give and take between Clark and his dad and more of a series of flashbacks (very poorly integrated into the narrative, making the structure rather confusing and, again, inconsistent) of Mr. Kent lecturing his son about how he has to hide his powers and whatnot. It doesn’t get much deeper, which makes the relationship feel much shallower than it should. Meanwhile, Russell Crowe is fine, if not memorable, as Mr. Exposition Man. It is from him that we get the most backstory, which kind of makes his place beyond the first half hour of the film rather unnecessary. Instead, they build his “consciousness” into the story. Sort of like Old Ben Kenobi.

Which brings us to the villain, General Zod. A week later and I still don’t remember what exactly his deal was. (Just kidding.) In actuality, there just wasn’t enough plot for me to care what his deal was. Zod was neither sympathetic enough to grant the audience an emotion turnaround, not villainous enough to make his truly despicable. Instead, Michael Shannon, who shines in Take Shelter and HBO’s Boardwalk Empire gives us an over the top performance that seems better fit to the 1970s film than the attempted grittiness of this new one. It isn’t funny, exactly, but you can see the crumbs on the side of Shannon’s face from the scene he just chewed.

The real problem here is the women in the film, in that they do nothing and/or are reduced to bimbos. Even sweet Amy Adams is given nothing to work with for Lois Lane. I may not know a lot about the Superman universe, but what I do know is that Lois Lane is a tough character. She has a masculine vibe about her which she “needs” as a journalist. She’s driven and determined and not really subservient. She’s even won a Pulitzer, as Adams proudly proclaims. But Adams is given so little to do in the film, besides playing the beleaguered journalist looking for the man who saved her. She doesn’t seem like the hardcore, motivated character that Lois Lane is supposed to be. She receives a lot of help from men, and her character ends up lacking depth. The rest of the females are either helped by men, ask questions that people in their position should know, or make funny, but very vapid comments. The rest of the cast, from Christopher Meloni to Laurence Fishburne, also suffer from this lack of depth, if not from the casual sexism of the script.

So, while the film might be well animated, it is also very loud, maybe unnecessarily so. Such forced loudness caused me fatigue and boredom. I’m not sure which is worse. But sound for sound’s sake does not, again, add sonic texture to the setting or the story. It’s just loudness.

Its ostensible goal is somewhat achieved: there’s a new Superman movie and it will bring in new audiences. But its loftier goals of something thoughtful, interesting, and full of depth are never attained. Snyder, Nolan, and Goyer even fail to make Superman contextually relevant, instead making the film kind of faceless, save for the gross use of post-9/11 imagery. What we have here is something loud and brassy, and if that’s what people want, that’s fine. But the attempts something higher than that, the only thing that comes of it is complete carnage.