Sucker Punch

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. 

“Spring” Awakening: Spring Breakers

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In certain ways, many ways, Britney Spears, that former (or current?) Princess of Pop is everything you need to know about Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. She was once a good girl, but, seemingly bored by that persona, dipped into a little bit of a wild and crazy lifestyle. (Remember Britney and Kevin Chaotic?) That descent, as insane as it was, granted her some media power in a way. She was, maybe unintentionally, controlling every viewer’s eyes. But, she was able to resurrect herself in a way, and that could speak for the careers of the four attractive stars of the film. There seems to be, however, a song to every part of the film. The film itself is, as described by its writer/director, “a violent pop song”. And, sort of like many of the people in this film, you will be hard pressed to find a more intoxicating experience at the movie theater this year. For better or worse.

Tired of the boring community college environment they’re stuck in and begging to get out of what they could easily call a social jail cell, four girls plan to fulfill one of the most American rites of passage ever: head down to Florida for Spring Break. Lacking the necessary funds to plan this getaway, three of them rob a restaurant. And, from there, it’s smooth sailing. Or drinking. And bong hitting. And coke sniffing. (You name it, they probably did it.) This is until they are, inevitably, arrested, only later to be bailed out by a strange benefactor: a narcissistic gangster rapper (in the most literal terms) named Alien.

Many of the sequences are, honestly, not to my taste. They play like a slightly more artful (barely) montage from Girls Gone Wild, but it makes sense. These scenes of women being drenched in beer and twerking (I think?) are the film’s establishing shots. And what a film they establish.

Can a film be both moralistic and yet morally ambiguous? If not, the film is, interestingly enough, a recipe thrown together in the most fascinating way, with elements seemingly contradicting one another and yet working cohesively as a whole nonetheless. (That recipe will, undoubtedly, get you drunk.) For all of the immoral, irresponsible, often terrifying things that the four stars partake in, the film empowers them with agency. Korine, who is previously known for art house experiments like Julien Donkey-Boy, Trash Humpers, and Mister Lonely, judges the generation, but not the individuals, it seems. By giving the characters agency in what they’re doing, sometimes offering them a chance at redemption, albeit in a snarky and sarcastic and heavy handed way, these girls represent an odd look at an ambivalent generation, but one that, if they wanted to, could exploit their power. Korine is intentionally grabbing the audience’s attention by portraying these real acts, but the ambiguity with which the material is sometimes served, or perhaps inconsistency, surprisingly gives a great amount of freedom to the viewer to decide how terrible or how bizarrely admirable these characters are.

I should go back: the four actresses in question are the main show, the main attraction. I mentioned in a previous post how fascinated I was by the film, primarily by its actresses and how they subverted their image for this film, and the subsequent exploitation of this to bring in audiences. Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens are former Disney Princesses and Ashley Benson is on the ABC Family teen soap Pretty Little Liars. The outlier of the group is Rachel Korine, the wife of the director, who is no stranger to subversion of persona; she was in Trash Humpers, though she is the least well known of the four. But, the four actresses are cunning in a way.

Gomez, utilizing her cherubic, good girl nature best, plays Faith, the most moralistic of the group. But her flaw is in her judgment of her friends’ character, and she seems perfectly willing to engage in some of the lewd acts depicted in the film as long as her friends are there. Yet the ideological crisis in the film presents something interesting. It is she who says that seeing the same people, the same campus, etc. is maddening. So, the most moralistic and the most bored is therefore the most likely to rebel, in a way. The bathroom where they contemplate Spring Break has the same color palette as the jail cell they end up in later. This urge and rebellion seems more extreme than the other girls, because they are already prone to such behavior, whereas Faith is not. If there were a Spears song to describe her character, it might be “(You Drive Me) Crazy”. Contextually, it obviously doesn’t make sense alone, but if the song is talking about the allure of being bad and the excitement of being too deep in a situation, then it works. But, Gomez, like the song, knows her limits. Her alternately coquettishness and naïve tendencies heighten some of the films ambiguity. When watching the film, you are, like she is, unsure if she’s really having a good time. Unsure if she should be being chastised for what she should be doing, after the numerous, pseudo-sincere phone messages she leaves on her grandmother’s phone, that repeat over and over like a song.

Vanessa Hudgens sort of subverted her image in Sucker Punch, a film that really shares a lot in common with its feminist spin, but, unlike Spring Breakers, fails miserably. Hudgens is given something to do, which is important. Not being thrown by the wayside, her furious, sexy and powerful character is scary, along with Ashley Benson. The two of them, especially, are easily able to channel their agency and submissiveness whenever they feel it necessary to use one or the other. They are, at once, “Overprotected” and “Toxic”, finally getting their desire in their ability to let loose and make their own choices and also being poisonously powerful. “Toxic” works not only for the two of them, but also Franco’s Alien. Between them (as well as Rachel Korine) is a frightening and electric dynamic, where power continuously shifts again and again. This is especially evident in one particular scene, one I shan’t describe beyond saying that it could give Killer Joe a run for its money.

Speaking of money, much of the strongest statements from the film, however thrown against the wall it may sometimes feel, is about the American Dream. Franco’s Alien is the epitome of how that phrase has evolved over the last several decades and how it has more fittingly become an American Nightmare. With Franco’s brilliantly narcissistic transformation into someone who seems to have everything, he attracts the girls in an obvious way. He runs the “Circus”; however often power may go back and forth between he and his “soul mates”, he’s the de facto ring leader. Franco’s accent may sound sort of goofy in the trailers, but within the context of the film, it works startlingly well. He has “shorts of ever color”, his bed is covered in guns and money, and the girls all want him. They are attracted to his status and the control he has over materialistic goods. The girls’ responses are, in a way, frightening; not only do they want those things (which is unsurprising), it’s shocking to see what lengths they’ll go to in order to retain that status. Then again, these are the girls that robbed money to go on vacation. They need the immediacy of pleasure, the instantaneousness of gratification. And that says a lot about the world we live in, considering people get pissed when Google Chrome is running slowly.

It is beneficial that the film does not have much dialogue, for it would pretty much undermine most of the performances and turning them into something less serious and less believable. But the dialogue that is in the film is used judiciously and sparingly, much of it being repeated over and over again. The comparison has already been made dozens of times, but it does have a connection to Terrence Malick’s dream like narration… that is, if the philosophy he were pushing ended up being kind of half assed and snarky. Here again, the film embodies the generation it depicts. There are lies told in the voice over that masquerade as epiphanies and changes, but we all know that there is barely an ounce of regret in there. And that’s what’s terrifying about it. How real it all seems, all that apathy and ambivalence.

In the narration, though, the faked innocence of the phone calls is eventually paired up with rhymes that Alien recites. These rhymes sound like deadly rewrites of typical nursery poems, corrupting the youthfulness of what was once pure.

Spring Breakers feels throughout like a horror film. It obviously was not going to be the fun, raucous adventure that the campaign is pushing so hard, but I was not expecting how scary it would be. Not only in what the characters were doing, but the attitude that they took with each activity. Seeing the film with an audience full of tweens managed to add a weird new way of looking at the film. It wasn’t what they were expecting, but their reactions are what scared me. I had been interested as to what the audience response would be, but I wasn’t expecting what I got. There was a lot of guffawing and laughing involved, and during some of the most critical and unsettling scenes. Granted, there were a few moments in which Franco’s outlandish portrayal was funny (intentionally so), but other moments where violence was committed or something disturbing was being said or shown on screen, the audience laughed. This is, I guess, the film’s biggest success. It recreates, almost perfectly, how these kinds of people act when shown various scenes of truly questionable and upsetting scenes. The girls themselves think that much of what they do is a joke or a game or something to laugh at. “Pretend it’s a videogame,” is what one girl says before robbing the chicken joint. And not only do that do that with gusto and aplomb, the audience responds to it exactly how the characters do; as if it isn’t serious. It’s just a videogame.

Undoubtedly, my favorite sequence involves a Britney Spears song, a white grand piano, and guns. Not only for the sheer fact that it is deeply disconcerting, but also because it casts a spell over you, as does the entire film. As terrible as the images may be, it’s intoxicating. But, I would disagree with Korine as to his assertion that the film is like a violent pop song. While it has hooks, verses, and a chorus that take the form of repeating images, sounds, and words, it feels more like one solid composition that covers the expansiveness of an album. It’s a symphony of violence, debauchery, morality, immorality, and insanity. And its soundtrack, provided by the likes of dubstep king Skrillex, Drive maestro Cliff Martinez, and co-star rapper Gucci Mane, is the popular sadism in sonic form.

The films insanity is further shown in the gorgeous and dizzying cinematography from Gasper Noe’s DP Benoit Debie, who worked on the celluloid LSD trip that was Enter the Void. The film’s neon and candy colored visuals create a false sense of security, juxtaposing the perceived innocence of the girls (actresses and characters) against their harsh and hyper-real world. It looks gorgeous, easily lulling the viewer.

Korine dissects the American Nightmare, the loss of innocence, the immediacy of pleasure, etc. Aside from that, Spring Breakers is the horror film it never knew it could be, reflecting a society and a demographic that is all too real. And despite the moralistic ambiguities and grey areas, the film is nonetheless a sublimely made tale, almost like a documentary. If there were one song to describe how Korine, a known provocateur, might sing to articulate how successful his film is in portraying these things, it would definitely be “Oops! I Did It Again”.