Man of Steel (2013)

June 4, 2015 § Leave a comment

Man of Steel is a pretty damn good film. Expectations were high, considering the film needed to reboot Superman, update the character, start a new “shared universe” DC series, and managed to be a great summer film all at the same time. mosAdditionally, people wanted different things — including something in the spirit of the Christopher Reeve films — but the final result is remarkably successful. It’s a Superman for the 21st century, a very human, somewhat cautious character who grew up knowing he was different from everyone else, which wouldn’t always be a joy. Particularly for those expecting something in the spirit of a Christopher Reeve film, this would come as something of a surprise. But the studio had already made a film like that (called Superman Returns), and while a good film, it was time for an update.

Henry Cavill gives the role a certain nobility — lucky for them, since that quality isn’t always perfectly clear in the script. Add to that stunning special effects, a good supporting cast, a moving (for me, anyway) back history with his father (and his sudden loss), and you get an updated Superman, mildly cynical Superman film that still has heart. The film seems to have taken a lot of criticism for not being a laugh a minute, but I think his brief, joyous laugh (on discovering he can fly) is a small, human moment that’s more sincere and real than we get from any wise-cracking Marvel film (sorry, Marvel fans).

If I could change a couple of minor things: for goodness sakes, let Lois Lane say “Superman” instead of being too cool for that, and I think it was a mistake for Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent to say “maybe” young Clark should’ve let the kids on the bus die. What, seriously? I think that one moment is the reason people attack the morality of the Superman character, and the point of the scene is that he couldn’t let the kids die, and couldn’t reveal himself either. The Kents need to be the moral centre of old Supes, so that his immense powers are never running rampant. Instead, father Kent is loving but a little wishy-washy.

I’d also have arranged for Superman give a better speech to Zod at the end, instead of simply, “You’re a monster, and I’m going to stop you.” Zod desperately needs to be told at this point that if he cared about Krypton, it could’ve had a different legacy: helping the human race learn from Krypton’s mistakes. If that wasn’t enough for him, he only has his own ego and inflexibility to thank. At the heart of the film is an interesting story about accepting the reality of the world, or being willing to destroy it in order to reshape it, which has horrendous consequences. And, a much snappier comeback from the Man of Steel at that point would’ve helped ensure he’s something more than a dumb hunk, but thankfully Cavill does a lot to help this just with presence. Michael Shannon also deserves mention as a terrific villain. Man of Steel isn’t a perfect superhero film, and it can’t be all things to all people, but I think it does an excellent job of updating the legend, and providing a hell of a ride.


Skyfall (2012) and Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

September 29, 2013 § Leave a comment

Skyfall is the most confident, polished and elegant Bond film since the 1960s. In that sense (and mainly in that sense, as the nods to the past are only occasionally obvious here) it’s a perfect film for the fiftieth anniversary of the franchise, certainly demonstrating its ability to reinvent itself. If you go back and watch an earlier film like my personal favourite You Only Live Twice it has a measured pace, confidently switching from a more romantic scene to an action scene that’s not frantic, but is quite engaging and memorable, as when Bond puts together Little Nellie to fly out over a volcano that may be a hidden base, or when he fights a desperate fight with a very large man, and only wins by clonking him over the head with an odd statue. You could accuse this of being a series of set-pieces, but let’s be honest, any critic hauling out this accusation forgets that there was never a Bond film that stood around anywhere for very long. Before I go any further, there are mild and significant details spoiled for both films here. 

Skyfall begins with an engaging spy story, but soon takes the time Daniel Craigto include more character detail, certain relevant questions about the possibility of outliving your usefulness, even as the action is refreshing, extremely watchable and polished. Finally, the film pays tribute to the past with certain nods to the ejector seat (Goldfinger). And while the first few Daniel Craig films wisely declined to repeat the Bond formula for a while, this one comfortably reintroduces Moneypenny (who is finally a character who can prove her worth in the field, even as Bond jokes she doesn’t) and Q, the technical expert and gadget man, also nicely reimagined. As viewers, we seem to be refreshed and ready for all this. Daniel Craig and Judi Dench, both quite confident in their roles, are both superb. Finally, after fifty years, people who followed the franchise both casually and more seriously can learn more about where Bond came from, and even luxuriate in a whole sequence set there that helps the whole film feel more grounded and in a way, almost anchored.

Star Trek Into Darkness is undoubtedly entertaining and has equally polished action, but suffers, by comparison, with more obvious and almost blandly irritating cultural recycling. I reviewed the first film in the Star Trek reboot series, which confidently both acknowledged and shoved aside any earlier Star Trek as a way to begin a new Trek universe. Not a bad idea, but they rushed things, and I fretted the characters have little backstory as a result. Kirk was now an undisciplined punk who rode a motorbike until he suddenly had a starship. Let’s ignore that he would’ve needed to first be a junior officer here, or posted there.

This time around, there’s a possible attempt to address that and say Kirk is still undisciplined and needs to learn something, but it feels like repeating an idea from only the last film, and at the end of the film it isn’t quite clear what he learned. He recites an oath for captains at the end of the film, but in a misguided moment they used “Space, the final frontier: these are the voyages… ” which has always been a shorthand explanation of the show in the opening credits. It doesn’t work as an oath, as it contains no code of behaviour or loyalty to anything in particular, except to “boldly go,” and all that. This is right after the characters literally stand around saying dialogue along the lines of “Well, what are we going to do now?” The most graceful part of the ending (and a theme the film briefly touches on a few times) is a brief moment it’s acknowledged that in fighting terrorism, we risk awakening demons within ourselves.

As for the story itself, many fans already know it recycles the second-ever Star Trek film from back in the 1980s, The Wrath of Khan. Trek films have borrowed from this one from time to time ever since, and never beaten it. Directed by Nicholas Meyer, it was fashioned into more or less Moby Dick in space, with an extremely vengeful Khan returning from the TV series to defeat and humiliate Kirk at all costs. Wrath of Khan was a gripping tale that left you with absolutely no questions about motivation, how something was accomplished, or anything else. This time around, the action is great, but the story has been retold in ways that don’t work as well, leaving the viewer with assorted questions (provided they think about it, some certainly won’t). Why does Khan hate Starfleet even when he appears to be getting everything he wants? He has a backstory, but Kirk wasn’t there, and neither were we, leaving the character to stand around and explain it. He’s physically impressive and played well by Benedict Cumberbatch, but his backstory is mainly that he’s an enhanced human from another era, fiercely loyal to his people, and determined to destroy Starfleet. In other words, closer to nutbar than proud with a deeply poisoned soul. We get more of Kirk zipping around in a space suit, and more of Kirk and Spock trying to beat the living daylights out of someone, which feels, for a fan, a bit like meatloaf two nights in a row. A scene that was supposed to quite moving, involving the death of a central character, is an interesting reversal from what we saw before, but I wasn’t moved. Perhaps others were, but I somehow didn’t feel these new versions of the characters had earned passionate farewells just yet. Regardless, the rug is almost immediately pulled out from under the idea anyway, as he’s brought back to life.

It was probably a difficult choice for the writers. Do we return to the most respected film the series ever knew, freshen it up somehow and give it to our newly imagined characters? As for the fans, they probably wanted to see it and didn’t want to see it. It’s a fun idea, but not likely to top the original, which is exactly what happened. I’m both glad I saw it and thought they fumbled the ball, overall.

Interestingly, Star Trek is another unstoppable franchise, and is now approaching fifty years old. If they make another film in time for the fiftieth anniversary of Trek, perhaps the filmmakers can take a lesson from Skyfall and confidently strike out on their own with a new story for these characters that pays tribute to the past mainly by reproducing the tone and spirit of the show at its best. Someone in this latest Star Trek film says something along the lines of “We’re supposed to be explorers.” Yes, I think that’s the idea. Unfortunately, they’ve also painted themselves into something of a corner with the shortened backstories they’ve created for the characters. Perhaps Kirk can miss his motorcycle.

The Phantom (1943)

March 17, 2013 § Leave a comment

Film serials are old enough that some people may not even know what they are, but if they frequently have one thing in common, it’s a fairly low budget. This presents a problem for serials, as they often don’t have a final episode that feels like much of a climax. Never mind the exploding base, it’s just that somebody finally captures the villain, which could have been done six Saturday afternoons ago, halfway through the series. In other words, it’s critical a film serial — if it’s going to be memorable at all — have lead actors able to carry it through twelve or fifteen episodes. It means a great deal if the actors are remarkably watchable.phantom

Fortunately, The Phantom has Tom Tyler. I’d suggest he’s somewhat underrated as an actor, but he isn’t actually a terrific actor. It’s more that he’s underrated as a presence. He gives The Phantom an extremely watchable quality, taking a part that could be absurd and making it work. Tyler is better known for another serial, The Adventures of Captain Marvel, but he’s excellent here too. Given his short, fairly tragic life (he’d die fairly young of heart failure about ten years after making this, his last starring role) I’m surprised his personal story has never actually been made into a drama.

The series also benefits from Kenneth MacDonald as the villain, who can according to Wiki, sound “gentle and ominous” at the same time, much like Boris Karloff. This is a fair statement. He’s the only other actor lending anything memorable to the serial, which is ultimately one of the better superhero ones I’ve seen (one sequence on a rope bridge appears to have inspired the end of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom). The fact that MacDonald is defeated off-camera after fifteen episodes nearly derails the ending, except that I’ve come to expect endings that decline to pull out all the stops, or simply can’t afford to do it. MacDonald apparently had a career lasting forty years, but is now largely forgotten, which is nearly as depressing as the Tom Tyler story.

The VCI Entertainment release has a commentary on episode one by Max Allan Collins, who points out Batman owes a certain amount to The Phantom, as a hero with no powers who uses assorted devices — including using fear as a weapon — and swore an oath to his family. The Phantom, however, is one man in a line of descendants, sworn to fight evil based on distant ancestors killed by pirates, and he lives in a fictional African country. And while this may have gone without notice decades ago, today we’re more conscious of stereotypes, and  a white man ruling assorted tribes with stories and tricks of smoke is a fairly awkward premise. I’m not suggesting Batman was trying to be politically correct, but it happens to trade this for a straightforward urban setting, and the more direct idea that his parents were killed, not distant ancestors.

The result of all this is that The Phantom will likely always be a relatively obscure hero, or will exist in updated, altered form, and this Tom Tyler serial can hopefully be accepted by most as a product of its time, stereotypes and all. I wonder what Tom Tyler would’ve done with Batman, a serial produced the same year that provides an extremely poor, low budget (even for a serial) start for the caped crusader. Lewis Wilson was a perfectly acceptable Bruce Wayne, but made for a fairly awful Batman. It’s interesting to note that while Batman may be the hero granted a permanent pass to our pop-culture consciousness, there was a time other heroes looked much more impressive.

Predators (2010)

July 19, 2010 § Leave a comment

When you expect crumbs, a few appetizers can feel like a feast.

As any sci-fi geek (closeted or otherwise) knows, Predators is something like the fifth (yes, fifth) appearance of the massive, dreadlocked aliens that love to hunt deadly prey, like certain humans. You get the feeling they spend their off-hours crushing beer cans on their foreheads, and watching replays of past hunts, which might include the original film starring Schwarzenegger, or Predator 2.  After that, the Predators made appearances in Alien vs Predator (a mediocre film) and Alien vs Predator: Requiem (an appalling bad film, and I’d literally pay to have the image of an exploding pregnant woman surgically removed from my brain). The first Predator film remains an entertaining, if overly testosterone-fueled update of The Most Dangerous Game, but it all goes downhill from there.

I caught this recent film because apparently I’m a sucker for certain kinds of summer films, and because I’d heard much better things about this instalment, which has a Hemingway-quoting Adrian Brody as a special-ops man suddenly fighting for his life, along with a pile of other types of human killers.

And yes, there are a few original moments here, and for once, some effort (not a lot, but some) is made for the viewer to know these characters a little and maybe care if they’re killed or not. Brody is an interesting choice for a lead actor (despite the irony that he has been in some very poetic anti-war films like The Thin Red Line and The Pianist) and without giving away too much, his character is given a little room to grow (not a lot, but a little). Laurence Fishburne nearly steals the film in a smaller appearance, and most of the other actors do their best with the requirement that they look stunned and puzzled for the first hour of the film, while they try to figure out where they are and what’s happening.

But this is the fifth appearance by these alien rednecks who love to hunt and collect trophy skulls, and what we’re given here is ultimately a remix of the first film, from the same score (and I mean it literally feels like the score from the first film) to some of the smaller moments, though with a few new elements thrown in. After five films, I thought we might finally learn something about what drives these aliens. How does a warrior culture develop such advanced technology, or do they steal it? I can’t imagine Predator scientists. Maybe there’s a whole other species that provides them with equipment for reasons of their own, creating another layer to the story.

No such luck. Predators is fast-paced and unpredictable enough to be entertaining, and my inner-geek certainly enjoyed it, but the franchise still doesn’t aspire to do anything more than rehash the original idea, and I can’t give the film a great review just for having some good moments along the way. I guess I can be grateful there were no exploding pregnant women, at least.

Red Cliff (2008)

July 10, 2010 § Leave a comment

Directed by John Woo, Red Cliff is an epic film and an epic accomplishment. At over four hours running time (beware the edited version), it isn’t a film that feels long or tiresome, even as it takes time out to explore characters and the fractured political landscape of China in 208 A.D.

In short, Chancellor Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi) uses unification of the country as an excuse for power and harsh conquest, and Red Cliff is the story of his struggle against smaller, but much more motivated forces. It’s human nature to favour the underdog, just as this film does.

The film is closer to dramatic mythology than historical accuracy, with a mixture of battle tactics that seem realistic enough and the kind of floating high-wire fighting we’ve seen in kung-fu films. It’s slightly jarring at times, but somehow it all works. The battle scenes are terrifically impressive even if the CGI seems a little overdone — at least, it’s hard to believe quite so many arrows in the air — but it’s easy to forgive when the film takes time out to explore the characters and add occasional doses of reality. There are even memorable scenes of nameless soldiers: a man hacks at a barricade, is hit with an arrow in the upper chest but hacks at the barricade a few more times before two more arrows take him down. In a few brief seconds, it’s a portrait of a common soldier fiercely dedicated to the fight against an invasion of his homelands.

At the same time, all the military generals and more central characters are the ones capable of leaping from a balcony and floating gently to the ground, and while it suits the epic nature of the film, I also wonder if it’s meant to be symbolic that the more privileged characters have enhanced abilities to match. It’s certainly a striking contrast to the many soldiers we see struck down, and though unintentionally done it may be one of the few things that detracts from the film, because our heroes are less likeable if they’re just a weaker set of aristocrats controlling the common man.

Of the many great moments in the film, there’s a scene of two characters talking until one of them releases a bird and the camera follows it for several minutes as it sweeps over the armies and ships on one side, across the bay and down over the opposing armies and ships before landing right in the enemy camp. And sure, it’s a mix of special effects and a long helicopter shot of some kind, but the result is still spectacular, and that kind of care has been taken from start to finish. There’s even a good score to be found here. John Woo has directed stylish and impressive films before, but I think this one will be seen as the crowning achievement of his career.

Death Rides a Horse (1967) and Shalako (1968)

June 27, 2009 § Leave a comment

So intense-looking he played intimidating characters even as an elderly actor, Lee Van Cleef is among my favourite actors in the Western genre. He has small parts in impressive Westerns like High Noon (1952) with Gary Cooper, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) with Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, and The Tin Star (1957) with Henry Fonda and Anthony Perkins. Finally, he had much larger roles in most of the Sergio Leone trilogy with Clint Eastwood, appearing in For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good the Bad and the Ugly (1966). As far as I’m aware Death Rides a Horse is among the few Westerns with him as the hero, so I was a little dismayed when it began with a long, unclear shot of rain and horses and opening credits that looked as though a college student had done them. But the film finds its way, and while a little slow it’s an extremely satisfying Western, if a little typical of the spaghetti Western revenge story. With a score by Ennio Morricone, this one deserves a better quality release on DVD.

Shalako stars Sean Connery, having turned down Bond for the first time, and apparently interested to do a Western as a fan of the genre. The film is interesting for the cast — Brigitte Bardot, Stephen Boyd as a villain, and Connery is reunited with his costar Honor Blackman from Goldfinger (1964), certainly one of the better Bond films ever made. Unfortunately, Shalako doesn’t ever really feel like it gets off the ground. The plot concerns an aristocratic hunting party that couldn’t care less they’re on an Apache reservation. When they’re brought clear proof the Apache are upset but prove too pompous and stupid to simply ride off the reservation before daybreak, the viewer begins to wonder why Shalako (Connery) helps them at all, except for the vaguely implied suggestion you’re supposed to help your own ethnic group, no matter what. Most of the dialogue involves characters grumbling at each other, and most of the action involves characters shooting wildly at each other across long distances. Sadly, Shalako is a passable Western and not the film it should have been considering the cast.

Our Man Flint (1966)

May 9, 2009 § Leave a comment

If something is immensely successful, parody never takes long to arrive, and original actor Sean Connery was still playing Bond in 1966 when James Coburn starred as Derek Flint. Flint doesn’t work for the government and has to be talked into a mission to stop a powerful organization from controlling the climate and threatening destruction on a global scale (and, never mind how that has an eerie ring to it over forty years later). Flint knows everything, is followed by women wherever he goes, but declines the briefcase with a hidden knife in favour of his lighter, which has 82 functions — 83 if you actually want to light a cigar. In an amusing twist, he isn’t just a Bond caricature, but a guy that’s even cooler, who’d rather be teaching ballet in Russia than saving the world, which always manages to sort itself out, after all. He even meets “triple-oh-eight” along the way (a Connery lookalike, but with an American accent) and pretty much pummels him and chucks him out the door.

By twenty-first century standards the film is a little slow, but Coburn is a great choice for Flint, and wisely manages to avoid sending it up or winking at the camera. And, unlike the Austin Powers films, Flint actually has some impressive stunts and entertaining (if not too suspenseful) action sequences along the way in addition to a good score by Jerry Goldsmith, probably one of the best film composers who ever lived. There’s nothing utterly memorable here, but it’s a little hard not to enjoy a film that’s both a successful parody and colourful entertainment by itself.

Watch a few clips of the film with the Goldsmith score here, and if you haven’t seen them, check out Coburn in a great Western called The Magnificent Seven (1960) as well as A Fistful of Dynamite (also known as Duck You Sucker), a later Sergio Leone film from 1971.

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