Sunday, August 18, 2013

A Belated Examination of Man of Steel

The cast was terrific. The action was amazing. So how come I walked out of Man of Steel with a sense of irritation? What is it that crawled under my skin?

I've been turning that question over for a few weeks now. This summer has been full of blockbusters that were middling (Stark Trek Into Darkness) or visually incoherent (The Wolverine) or seemingly designed to subvert your expectations (Iron Man 3, which I liked). But Man of Steel is the only one that left me with a bitter aftertaste.

Director Zach Snyder and writer David Goyer bring substantial skills to Man of Steel — Snyder's ability to convey the sheer physics of action has always been terrific, and Goyer deserves praise merely for the charming and sweet last exchange of the movie.

But they get Superman wrong in a fundamental and troublesome way.

Snyder and Goyer seem convinced the interesting thing about Superman is the range of his powers, and you can pratically sense them tapping their feet and looking at their watches to pass time until Superman can punch Zod through a skyscraper. Sure, they go through the motions of Clark Kent's origin story, but it's rushed and choppy and frequently doesn't make any sense. The movie's heart rate only rises in the final third, when Superman and his superpowered foes start smashin' stuff. 

Don't get me wrong —  Superman punching Zod through a skyscraper is cool. But it's not what makes Superman interesting. What's interesting about Superman is all the decisions he has to make — which are often difficult, even heartbreaking — leading up to the part where he punches someone through a skyscraper.

When audiences sit down to watch a Superman movie or read a Superman comic, they know he's not going to get beat in a fight. I mean — he's Superman. The fight might be cool, but its ending is largely a foregone conclusion. They want to see a decent character who has hope, not cynicism, about mankind, and they want to see that character struggle to tease the goodness out of us that he knows we possess.

Nitpicks (some minor spoilers follow)

1) Zod says to Superman during their confrontation: "There's only one way this ends — either I die, or you do!" That, of course, is two ways it can end.

2) Lois Lane to an Army commander after arriving at his base: "No need to pretend to like me, General. We both know the reason I'm here is a judge overruled the subpoena keeping me away." I realize accuracy about journalism isn't Man of Steel's primary concern, but that's just agonizing and labored. And dumb.

3) On a similar note, I like how Perry White has a star reporter come back from an assignment, report that she saw a spaceship and a magic dude who sterilized her wound with laser eyes, and White totally had a calm, even underwhelmed reaction. I like to think there's a backstory where Lois Lane is constantly reporting she's discovered Bat Boy, but no one believes her.

4) Why do Zod and his minions just invite Lois Lane on their spaceship for seemingly no reason? Also, why do they need to terraform Earth? Wouldn't Superman be more likely to help them if they picked some other planet? And if they do need to terraform Earth, why not just lie about it to Superman instead of virtually guaranteeing his opposition?

5) Zach Snyder loooooooooves having characters drop to their knees and yell, "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!"

Monday, August 12, 2013

A Few Thoughts on Prom Night (1980)

The 1980s were a great time for horror movies.

There's no doubt part of the reason I say that is nostalgia, since I spent some of the latter part of the decade staying up late, drinking cans of Mountain Dew — in the original solid-green can, recognize — and watching horror movies on the USA network.

But part of it is true, too. Not only did you have some great horror flicks (The Thing, Poltergeist, They Live), you had a whole sub-genre of middling-budget, boob-baring slasher movies. They're mostly forgettable, but there's a certain let's-put-on-a-show quality I appreciated then and appreciate now. They knew they were cheesy, they knew they had no money and crummy special effects and actresses whom, if called upon in a scene to breathe, would prompt the view to say, "I don't buy it."
But they persisted. They were going to entertain you if you liked it  or not.

Which brings us to Prom Night.

Prom Night is a not-very-well-remembered Halloween ripoff that managed to nab Halloween's star (Jamie Lee Curtis) but little of its brutal efficiency. I remember catching it on TV when I was young and finding it scary. After watching it, it's not worth a full review, but I'll hit some highlights.

1) When I was a kid, the opening of this movie terrified me, and I was pleased to see it's the only part of the film that still holds up. In it, a group of kids play a highly pitched, creepy game of hide and seek, surround a girl in the second floor of an abandoned building and startle her into backing out the window. It's not the scariest thing ever, but the scene has a genuinely unbalanced, unsettling feel to it, with a refreshing lack of overbearing music or special effects. It works.

2) The rest of the movie is largely terrible, mostly because of a draggy portion that feels like it takes up an hour of its hour-and-a-half running time.

3) There is a scene where Jamie Lee Curtis disco-dances at the prom, complete with floor lit up beneath her, and it's astonishing. It deserves one of those lifetime-acheivement Oscars. 

4) The fashion in this movie is incredible. Don't miss the brother and sister who are wearing matching horizontal-stripe turtlenecks, which they have tucked into their pants.

5) There's an occasional flash of skill that makes you wonder what the movie could have been with better pacing. For example, in one portion, the killer calls the now-older kids who frightened the victim out the window, and viewers get a brief glimpse of the characters' younger selves to orient them. It's a nice touch. 

6) The identity of the real killer is hidden until the final scene, but the film offers a series of increasingly obvious red herrings. The highlight is the creepy janitor, who can be seen quietly mouthing the phrase "I am clearly not the killer" throughout.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Your 2013 Summer Blockbuster Roundup: Fast & Furious 6

I popped my collar and slammed a Red Bull before jumping out of an airplane on a dirt bike, so I'm totally qualified to say this: The Fast & Furious franchise has become one of the weirdest and surprising delights in movies over the last few years.
The franchise kicked off with The Fast & the Furious, a low-grade street racing thriller featuring Vin Diesel and Paul Walker. It seemed destined to be forgotten by the time you got home from the theater.
Then something surprising happened.
Actually, two things.
First, the franchise continued — first with a terrible-if-goofily entertaining sequel without Diesel, then with a third film that completely rebooted the franchise in another country (Japan).
Second, it got better. A lot better.
While the first few films in the franchise stubbornly struck with the street-racing theme, the fourth, fifth and sixth films largely abandoned it to become something else entirely. Instead of street racing, our ever-expanding group of characters began traveling the world, pulling over increasingly implausible heists and missions when they weren't admiring ladies' asses and having totally bitchin' barbecues.
With that, the series found its personality: it's Ocean's 11 for bros.
That personality hasn't been more apparent than in Fast 6, where the group decamps to Europe. They're there to pursue a bland European villain who's trying to — well, the movie doesn't go out of its way to explain it, because, really, it's summer and who cares, bros?
Things like 'plot' and 'character growth' and 'following the laws of physics' aren't what this franchise is about. It's about racing through the streets in tricked-out cars. It's about having Gina Carano and Michelle Rodriguez throw down in a subway station. It's about a group of characters chasing a tank down a freeway in muscle cars.
The Fast & Furious franchise is focused on only one thing — showing the audience things that are TOTALLY AWESOME.
Anything that gets in the way of that is discarded without a second thought, which is why you can have a scene where Vin Diesel drives a car out of the nose of an exploding plane and it's not one of the top three craziest things that happen.
It's ridiculous. It's loony. And it's the most fun you'll have this summer.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Your Daily False Equivalence

From a Seattle Times editorial today on sequestration: "The Obama administration needs to agree to entitlement cuts, and the Republican-controlled House needs to agree to more cuts in military spending."

Headline on an AP story hosted on the freakin' SEATTLE TIMES from April: 'Obama seeks deal, proposes cuts to Social Security."