Zod of Carnage: Man of Steel
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.
Singers in the Dark: Les Misérables
Despite practically growing up on musicals, a) I never got to see Les Misérables live and b) the televised/filmed productions of the seminal musical have never really struck me as deeply as, say, The Phantom of the Opera, Sweeney Todd, Company, Chicago, Cabaret, etc. Les Misérables is great, I am certainly not denying that, but it never cracked my list of “favorites”. That said, I am truly a sucker for some of the music, “On My Own” probably being my favorite. The 10th Anniversary “Dream Cast” Concert is quite lovely to behold, and thus, hearing of an actual film adaptation of the musical intrigued me. The original story, based on the novel by Victor Hugo, had been adapted to the screen a handful of times (including one with Liam Neeson), but Tom Hooper’s period spectacle would mark the first time the musical would make it to the big screen. And, because I love musicals, I was excited. Instead of getting in line for the tickets, I should have gotten in line for the guillotines.
Les Misérables tells the sad, sad tale of a bunch of people prior and during the French Student Rebellion (June 1832), and not the French Revolution (1789-1799). Included in this group of the afflicted is Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a man who spent over a decade in prison for stealing bread to feed his family; Javert (Russell Crowe), the dutiful officer; and Fantine (Anne Hathaway), the poor single mother who goes to certain extremes in order to allocate money to send to the couple taking care of her daughter, Cosette (later played by Amanda Seyfried). As Jean Valjean moves up in the world under a pseudonym, the presiding officer holds a grudge and the animosity between the two ends up involving pretty much everyone else somehow or another.
The implications of a theatrical adaptation of a stage show, whether it is an actual play (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Rabbit Hole, etc.) or a musical (Cabaret, Chicago, Sweeney Todd) is to not merely paste the songs in a film like setting, but to fill in some of the holes by utilizing everything that film as a medium has to offer. Expand on character relationships, elaborate on character goals and motivations; effectively explain plot holes or context. With a musical (and its source material) that is so often incorrectly assumed to be about the French Revolution, you would think that the film adaptation would give the perfect opportunity to give more context to the time and setting of the darn thing. Alas, no. Tom Hooper, who can do period detail very well (see: Elizabeth I and John Adams from HBO), instead seems to concentrate on just seemingly cutting and pasting the singing of the stage show to a well-dressed back lot. Without that context or background, the stakes are not nearly as high and the audience, including myself, has less of a reason to care about a) the characters involved and b) the situations they are stuck in. There is no primer as to the Student Rebellion and the most we are offered are a couple lyrics sung by a dirty, if cherubic blond kid in a thick Manchester accent. He sings about the lack of change and the remaining bourgeoisie reign, but so what? That alone isn’t enough to make me care. Give me higher stakes and give me more reason. A couple lines from “ABC Café” are hardly reason enough to make us care about a Student Rebellion (who, by the way, seem too well dressed to really seem like they care about the upper class).
Part of the problem is the streamlining of the material. On stage, you have more time because you have an intermission, and those going to a musical have, generally, educated themselves enough to get the gist of things. If not, then the book or the lyrics do some of the heavy work for you. There is not as much an issue in terms of time and linearity because of the sparseness of sets and locations, but in a film, you must deal with time as a concept. Which means that as Valjean contemplates his existential identity crisis in “Who Am I?/The Trial”, in the space of three cuts, he goes from his little house to riding on horseback to the courthouse. Those three cuts take less than three seconds altogether. There is no actual travel, unless you count the split second, blink and you miss it ride on horseback. This is not limited to that one scene, but several scenes. The love story in the second half of the film looks entirely moronic because there isn’t enough time to develop Cosette and Marius’ attraction to one another. Star crossed love is romantic when the characters are allowed to revel in what they have just experienced, however brief it may be; but when it is reduced to literally ten seconds and no less than ten reverse, point of view shots, the rest of the stakes for love are dwarfed and just look stupid. In an attempt to quicken things up and make an already deathly long and poorly paced film seem shorter, some plot points are either dropped or obscured by and buried under the “let’s get through all the songs first”.
This, I suppose, is in itself a mixed bag. You have seen the ad more time than Sascha Baren Cohen’s ratty Thenardier has stolen gold pieces, and it has been something the Les Misérables have been pushing really hard: the live singing. Marketed as “the first time it’s ever been done before” is not actually true. The 1995 television adaptation of Gypsy (starring Bette Midler) featured live singing; Susan Stroman’s ill-fated screen adaptation of the Mel Brooks’ musical The Producers had live singing; and Julie Taymor’s experimental Beatles musical Across the Universe had “live singing 80% of the time” (this according to the director’s commentary on the DVD). Les Misérables only stands apart from the first two in that the live singing isn’t so much singing (not in the performing way that most musicals employ) as it is giving life to the songs. When it’s done well in the film, it can be truly visceral and moving (Anne Hathaway and Samantha Barks, for instance, nail you in the soul). When it does not work, it just seems sort of sad. While it is no surprise that Hathaway stuns with her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream”, the songs that seemed to work best were those that featured most of the company. “At the End of the Day”, “Lovely Ladies”, “One More Day”, and “Red and Black” all had verve and life to them, which several of the other solo/character focused songs did not.
Which brings me to this – Newsflash, I don’t like Hugh Jackman’s voice. I never have. He is a lovely actor, and his voice is technically fine. But, that’s what I don’t like about it. Jackman, as much soul as he tries to put into “Valjean’s Soliloquy” and “Who Am I?” seems to be so focused on technique and placed in a situation where he has to move and where the vocals will come out imperfect, he loses the essence of the tune. It sounds professional, sure, but the wealth of vibrato works against him in a way. Russell Crowe, for all of his unpolished singing abilities, in a way, surpasses Jackman vocally because you can hear the tune. The gravelly, maybe somewhat nasally quality gives more life to the character than Crowe actually provides when he is acting. (Much like Gerard Butler in Phantom, but worse.) It probably was not the best idea to hire Crowe, due to the complexity of the music and the range it requires.
With that laborious focus on singing and period detail by Hooper (whom I still, probably unfairly, resent for winning Best Director of The King’s Speech), the story, as I said, gets left behind. Which makes it feel like the intentions were to just see the famous people performing the songs one after the other. There are maybe 10 lines of dialogue total in the film, which, for most mainstream audiences, is not anywhere near enough. Again, with the medium of film, you have the opportunity to a) make a musical more accessible to other audiences and b) expound on story, characters, etc. There was zero attempt to do this; just song after song after song. It’s not this cycle that is inherently the problem; it’s the missed opportunity to make the story more enjoyable.
Aside from singing and famous people, some very strange focus (hah) was put on the film’s cinematography. Mostly, my time was spent scoffing in the theater, writing furiously on my notepad. If you’ve heard anyone complain about the camerawork, listen to them: it is pretty much the most abhorrent work I’ve seen this year. (As random as Killing Them Softly was, at least it was nice to look at and properly framed.) There should be a meme that says “FRAME A DAMN SCENE RIGHT, HOOPER!” I’m pretty sure his logic went as follows: “Okay, you go over there and act and I’m going to have my camera right up in your face. And then I’m going to turn it on a 135-degree angle.” While I’m sure the logic behind this was to provide an intimacy in the performance that the stage inherently cannot give, it does not explain why so many of his frames were off balance. That just looks like some of the half-assed pictures some of the slackers in my photography class take, except more expensive. Also, one can certainly utilize more than one camera angle to achieve intimacy. A musical, shot in all close-ups! There’s a reason why Fred Astaire was never shot in close up: so you could still get the essence of his performance.
When Hooper is not placing cameras six inches away from his actors’ faces, he is editing like he stepped into the editing room while on cocaine. I seriously wondered while I was sitting in the film if the people from Glee were editing the film. What few nice moments and nice frames there are on screen are snatched from us with a splice. This, again, affects linearity, but the constant CUT, CUT, CUT is so uninspired and useless. It works as an antithesis to the artistic desire to achieve more intimacy in the performances. The camera work itself does not work. Shakier than some of my own camera work on my short films, there seems to be no evidence of any SteadiCam used. Just tripods and someone seemingly drunk walking around with a camera. This is not supposed to be a poor man’s Dogme 95 inspired musical! You are no Anthony Dod Mantle! The action scenes don’t work either. If there isn’t a random Dutch angle (which, as far as I can tell, has absolutely no reason to be in there), there’s a fly, swoop, and a lot of cutting involved. I guess Michael Bay would be proud.
The film’s two saving graces are Anne Hathaway and Samantha Barks. I would like to think that Hathaway ignored Hooper’s direction altogether and that her transcendent portrayal of Fantine, however short it is (not a spoiler because of the source material), was pure instinct. She gives power, emotion, and passion to a film where there is none. Her heart shattering performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” is the film’s highlight. It’s close enough to get every look of Fantine’s but far away enough so that there is distance. It’s not the camera that should destroy the distance between audience member and character; it’s the character themselves and their power. And Hathaway succeeds in spades (a little reminiscent, it has been said, of Renee Falconetti in Carl Theodore Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc). Samantha Barks, a newbie to the film world, has portrayed the gloomy, heartbroken Eponine before on stage and in the 25th Anniversary Concert of Les Misérables. Despite that, she still brings something entirely new and fresh to the film, her performance of “On My Own” absolutely splendid. I suppose, if you’re going to spend your money on the film, do it for these two girls, one of whom I wouldn’t be too mad should she win the Academy Award. Eddie Redmayne, whom I didn’t know could sing, is actually quite good as well, but the film’s inability to really dig deeper into his character and his motivations leave a lot to be desired and mar the experience.
Les Misérables is a trifle; a film that could have easily avoided its problems by reeling back its eagerness and giving the story a chance. The singing might be cool, but what’s a song without a story behind it? Les Misérables is also probably the first film whose cinematography made me actively angry in the theater. Anne Hathaway and Samantha Barks are the film’s saviors. So, while you sit in the theater for what was, for me, a nearly unbearable two and a half hours, I’m going to sing these words:
“I had a dream this film would be,
So different from this Hell I’m watching,
So different now from what it seemed.
Now Hooper’s killed the dream I dreamed.”