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.
This list should have come about probably… um, six or seven months ago. But, I don’t get out often and my social life is more of a social networking life, so that generally prevents me from seeing a lot of films in the theater throughout the year. Personal ethics and the voices in my head prevent me from pirating or streaming generally, so I either end up seeing the film in the theater (I see an average of about… nine films in theater a year. I know, awesome) or I’ll catch the film on home video.
Anyways, last year was a pretty good year for film. I won’t say it was overly grand or abymal (I will, however, say, that the Oscars were abysmal), because how can you really compare a year to another just based on the films. I don’t even think if “more great films” were released on year than another would make it a “better year in film”. Aside from considering social/political/economic relevance, I don’t think the year matters as much anymore. That being said, the best films (to me) were the darkest ones. And they all, at least with regard to my list, had to do with life. Yes, you could argue that every film has to do with life, but the top ten films I chose from 2011 dealt with life in a particularly large magnitude. The ending of life on earth. The beginning of life on earth. The life of a man seeking redemption and meaning. What it means to live in your skin. What it means to grow up and live life as an adult. What it means to care and nurture for life. What it means for your life to be owned by someone else. What it means to consider the possibility of the end of all life. The ability to life as yourself and not as a lie. And what it means to live life in the present and reconcile nostalgia for the painful truth of now. And, in an honorable mention, what it means to give up your life for that of your bratty daughter. Yes, more than anything, I think the underlying theme of the best films of 2011 was about Life.
Which is ironic, because I don’t have one.
1. Melancholia | Directed by Lars von Trier
It’s no secret that Lars von Trier is the benevolent sadist of art cinema. His films are rarely easy to watch, always beautiful, and always challenging. With Melancholia, he presents to us an operating staging of the end of the world. Though, the end of the world hardly means anything in comparison to the characters he studies in the film and the lives he analyzes. The fly by planet may be that manifestation of depression for Justine, but it’s Kirsten Dunst’s stand out performance that makes the end of the world so memorable. Charlotte Gainsbourg, too, is outstanding ass Justine’s older sister, and their relationship dynamic slowly disintegrates throughout the film. The cinematography, despite being hand held in nature, still captures beautiful scenes and portraits. The impact Justine has, as her emotions fly out of control, is just as damaging as the collision of Earth and Melancholia. But that’s what great art is: a collision of beautiful ideas, sounds, images, and emotion.
2. The Tree of Life | Directed by Terrence Malick
It seems far less important understanding or analyzing the film than it is simply basking in all of its beautiful, daring, and undoubtedly striking spell. At its core, the film may (or may not) be about a family in Texas, as a child begins to rebel against his strict father. But, throughout that story of man versus nature, Terrence Malick dares us to sit and watch as the universe comes together before our eyes. It can be a turn-off for some, but one has to admire his audacity and the sheer scope of the challenge. Brad Pitt’s fierce storm of acting and Jessica Chastain’s effervescent mother nature is a wonder to behold. Love it or hate it, The Tree of Life certainly is a wonder.
3. Drive | Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
What Nicolas Winding Refn often does is say a lot without saying a word. This is especially true of his minimalist, post-modern, nostalgic Drive, in which Ryan Gosling fleshes out an entire character, sans origin story, and still makes us care for his journey in search of self. It’s a credit to Gosling’s ability as an actor that he can convey so much with just a, shall we say, vacant and dreamy look in his eye. With its ‘80s-esque pumped soundtrack, the turbulent and shocking bursts of violence, the neon drenched cinematography, and the love story at the center of everything, the film shifts between being completely original and out of left field and being “Camus Behind the Wheel”.
4. The Skin I Live In | Directed by Pedro Almodóvar
Although Pedro Almodóvar revisits his usual themes In The Skin I Live In, the approach is, well, rather different. Taking a page out of Georges Franju’s Eyes without a Face, The Skin I Live In mixes horror, a little science fiction, and classic domestic drama for one of the most compelling thrillers of the year. With its production design that negates sterility with fruitful virility, the non-linear story, and superb cast, the film dances around decadent and painful themes of identity, sexuality, and masculinity. The story, though, retains a dark yet bubbly and soapy aspect, sure to please anyone who likes a good twist. Almodóvar’s experiment in horror examines what it means to live as who you are versus who you were meant to be.
5. Young Adult | Directed by Jason Reitman
I sure as hell hope that I don’t end up knowing, or turning into, Mavis from Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody’s righteous and darkly hilarious Young Adult. Charlize Theron has the looks to have played a high school bitch, and she fits right into the role, almost as if she’d been playing it since birth. Cody’s razor sharp screenplay not only contains painfully funny dialogue, but even more painful examinations of disappointment and maturity, or lack thereof. She is as stuck in the past as one could ever be, manifesting her desires in her dying young adult book series. Joined by a stellar Patton Oswalt, maybe these guys should have paid attention during history, as they ended up being doomed and repeating it.
6. We Need to Talk About Kevin | Directed by Lynne Ramsay
(I’ll have to review this in full later.) It isn’t what you think it is and the trailer does a good job misrepresenting it. I say that as a compliment, for nothing can prepare you for the thrilling rollercoaster that is We Need to Talk About Kevin. With its subjective, completely non-linear style, cracked, broken and fragmented like memories, Tilda Swinton and Ezra Miller make the most out of sneers, looks of contempt, and a haunting score. The looks convey more volatility and pain than the dialogue, and director Lynne Ramsay is perfectly aware of that. This is acting and cinematography and direction that kills. For all of its title, once you reach the end of the film, you may be left completely speechless.
7. Martha Marcy May Marlene | Directed by Sean Durkin
A part of me really, really wanted for Elizabeth Olsen to get an Oscar nod for this film. Actually, all of me did, as she would have completely deserved it. But, Olsen does what her sisters didn’t (or couldn’t, I don’t know) do: she challenged herself right off the bat. Playing a damaged girl returning home after escaping a cult, Olsen is effortlessly professional on screen, at once making you think that she’s been doing this for years yet still retaining the naiveté needed to make her character believable. Sean Durkin’s tale of a life owned and then a life trying to get a hold of itself once more is cynical, scary, but downright enthralling.
8. Take Shelter | Directed by Jeff Nichols
More like Apocalypse Wow, if you know what I mean. So many of the year’s best films were actor driven, and Take Shelter is no different. Led by Michael Shannon and his visions of the apocalypse, his descent into madness is arguably one of the most convincing ever on screen. It’s never over the top or hammy, and throughout his problem, there is always a sense of vulnerability that’s there. Jessica Chastain once again pops up and once again gives a superb performance as Shannon’s wife. It’s all about the world ending, and whose lives mean the most to him and how he intends on protecting them.
9. Beginners | Directed by Mike Mills
It may be a little quirky, but it is, above all, incredibly sincere. Beginners is about life, love, and relationship dynamics, but I’m sure you already knew that from the trailer. With its subjective, twee perspective, Ewan McGregor embarks on a new life with a new girl as he remembers when he and his father embarked on a new life when his father came out of the closet. Christopher Plummer is endearing and perfect, as is Melanie Laurents, both of whom give beautifully naturalistic performances. Punctuated by different memories and cute storytelling elements, throughout its entirety, there’s never a false note. Its honesty is the most refreshing thing about it.
10. Midnight in Paris | Directed by Woody ALlen
If you know me or talk to me, you may be a tad surprised that a Woody Allen film, one that I raved and ranted about since its release, is this “low” on the list. Well, a) lists and rankings are essentially arbitrary and b) it’s not that my opinion has changed, it’s that I’ve restrained myself a little. Nevertheless Woody Allen’s delightful tale of the dangers of nostalgia is a pitch perfect comedy that hits every right note. Owen Wilson brings something new to the Woody archetype, making his struggling screenwriter his own, while the supporting cast is absolutely amazing. From mean girl Rachel McAdams, the pedantic Michael Sheen, and the tons of historical figures that appear as Gil travels back to Paris in the 1920’s (notably Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, and Dali), Allen is at the top of his game here. Midnight in Paris is a film that both warns one of the dangers of nostalgia, but enjoys it all the same.
Honorable Mention: Mildred Pierce | Directed by Todd Haynes
Okay, technically, this appeared on HBO as a mini-series, but it also premiered at the Venice Film Festival as a five hour movie. Mildred Pierce, for all of its length, is the closest anyone will ever get to a transliteration of a novel, every word and scene from James M. Cain’s noirish domestic drama brought to life by Kate Winslet. Winslet continues to impress me, taking on the role of the thankless mother as she gives in to her willful daughter’s demands. It’s a sight for the eyes, with the glorious cinematography and production value once again showing off HBO’s good tastes. Todd Haynes classic techniques and attention to detail is to die for. Winslet, though, is clearly the star, and won’t take no for an answer.
Last, but Certainly Not Least: Rango | Directed by Gore Verbinski
Rango is the perfect example of an animated film that just so happens to be aimed at kids, but whose subverted subject matter is elegantly and fantastically handled. It’s a quasi-Western about a lizard who, as the convention holds, pretends to be something he is not. Conventions notwithstanding, the dialogue, allusions, and voice work are enough to wipe any of the inconsistencies out of mind. The animation, however… will blow your mind. Industrial Light and Magic, you know the guys who brought Star Wars to life, make their first feature film and it is gorgeous. It’s photorealistic to the point where you have to squint to make sure it’s only computer generated imagery. Johnny Depp is wonderful, of course. With a story ripped out of Chinatown, Rango superbly goes where all animated films go but few do with such panache: self-reflexivity and meta-humor.
Come back in 12 months for my inevitable belated Top 10 of 2012!