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.

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.

The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

June 2, 2010 § Leave a comment

Writer Richard Matheson has a list of accomplishments that include some of the more celebrated original Twilight Zones episodes (and my personal favourite, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet), a thoughtful original Star Trek, and the novella I Am Legend, a gripping book made into a film no less than three times over the decades. The adaptation of his book The Shrinking Man is among his earliest work for film and TV, and while it’s a largely straightforward science-fiction journey — one that’s engaging and has impressive production values — the film also has touches of thoughtfulness that are typical for Matheson, and make the film something more than pure entertainment.

Our hero Scott Carey (Grant Williams) seems like a fairly typical guy, and he is. Scott loves his wife and playfully tries to get her to bring him a cold beer, but before long he’s troubled by a radioactive cloud, and other foreign materials that begin to act on his body. By the time he’s shrinking, consulting doctors and trying to avoid the media, it’s clear he hasn’t just been dislodged from his typical physical form, but his perception of himself as well. At three feet tall, he’s throwing tantrums at his wife (“Look at me!”) and trying to miserably sort out a new identity by flirting with a midget passing through town as part of the circus. And while that level of coincidence (I’m shrinking, and hey you’re a cute midget!) does make the middle part of the film a trifle forced, Matheson does well as a writer to imagine what psychological disruptions would accompany the physical ones, and the effects hold up well enough today to make the film interesting, and not laughable.

Next, he takes it a step further. We see Carey fighting off a cat in an effects sequence that must’ve been the equivalent of Jurassic Park in the 1950s, and finally he’s lost in the basement duking it out with a spider for a few crumbs of cheese. It’s almost as if the film says look, you think this is bad?  Try this. And Carey is forced to redefine himself again and again. There are two things I like about the ending (a few spoilers ahead). First of all, nobody saves him. Frequently science-fiction films manage to imply that we can mess with the world any way we want, because we’ll find a way to fix it. But nothing like that happens. Secondly, Carey ends up with a newly redefined sense of self and purpose that truly accepts that, well, size doesn’t matter. It manages to subtly challenge our deeply engrained ideas about importance, and status. He closes the film with these lines of monologue: “And I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing. My fears locked away and in their place came acceptance. All this vast majesty of creation, it had to mean something. And then I meant something, too. Yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something, too. To God there is no zero. I still exist.”

In short, an entertaining film is brought to a new level by a writer sensitive and intelligent enough to avoid complete closure, give his character some measure of enlightenment, and recognize that people matter, not their roles. My only complaint has nothing to do with the film, but is because it’s only available on monster and science-fiction collections, grouped with far cheesier films. According to Wikipedia it was recently named to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, and marked for preservation. A DVD release on its own with a documentary would also do a lot for the film.

Tron (1982)

April 19, 2010 § Leave a comment

Tron has a curious place in science-fiction film history — some of the visuals make it feel like the grandson of Metropolis (1927), even as some of the themes and ideas make it feel like the grandfather of The Matrix (1999). The film is anchored by a remarkably relaxed and charming performance from a young Jeff Bridges, who does a great job considering he probably acted the part with no surroundings, and they were all added later in an early production to make use of computerized effects.

In a nutshell, the plot has programs running around in a digital world de-rezzing when killed, and vying for power despite the autocratic control of a master control program. All the lesser programs are played by the same actors that create the programs in the “real” world, and at times the programs sit around musing about the possibility of a creator, known as a User. Do User-Creators exist or not? Jeff Bridges is somehow scanned and deposited into the computer world, and as a User begins to find he has the ability to manipulate it. The idea of a creation meeting its God isn’t played out to great effect, though there’s a good scene where a program assumes Bridges has been doing everything according to a greater plan, and the Bridges character just laughs. I was a little surprised by this. I expected an entertaining film I vaguely remembered from my childhood, not a film that manages to imply life is an impressive-looking accident and you’re a bit naive to believe anything else.

All the anthropomorphism in the film leaves me with mixed feelings, and it’s also something Disney tends to do a lot (yes, this is a Disney film). It’s thanks to this kind of thing we can feel more empathy for a program, but also thanks to this we don’t even begin to see it for what it actually is.  A donkey with a Texas accent might be lovable, but it certainly isn’t a donkey. And the language the programs use only goes part-way to producing the feeling they actually live in a different world. In fact, I think it’s fair to say the script needed a little work, overall. The central program / villain speaks like a parody of a gangster (“Somebody pushes me, I push back!”) and David Warner as the henchman serving the program is possibly the best actor in the film, but he’s reduced to lines like “Get them,” a lot of the time. Still, this is nit-picking, and was undoubtedly easy to overlook when the filmmakers were juggling so much, and paving new ground at the same time. Tron might be a little clunky in parts, and the effects certainly don’t compare to what can be done decades later, but that’s all fairly standard for science-fiction. It’s impressive because it breaks new ground visually and creatively, and new storytelling ground as a film about the marriage of organic life and technology. One of the filmmakers has commented that the film should remind the viewer of something they’ve never seen before, and I think that works for me. The creations that both break new ground and enter the popular consciousness have one foot in this world and one in a more innovative one, as a way to allow viewer to relate and connect but also lead them somewhere new. Tron follows film conventions a little too closely to feel shockingly new, but it does have a lot of originality on display.

At the Earth’s Core (1976) and The Creeping Flesh (1972)

August 2, 2009 § Leave a comment

“You cannot mesmerize me, I’m British!”  It’s a little hard not to enjoy Peter Cushing in this low-budget but fun adaptation of At the Earth’s Core. And while the story by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875 – 1950) is yet another thinly veiled older story about white people parachuted into a situation to set it straight, or naturally dominate somehow (much like Tarzan of the Apes), some of the humor manages to offset this antiquated idea. In a film designed for children, Cushing plays a Victorian scientist who tests out his Iron Mole drilling machine along with his American financier friend, played by Doug McClure. On arrival, they discover a human population that’s too fragmented to form a proper rebellion against enslavement by the Mahars, telepathic vulture-creatures, though on first arrival they’re chased by a tremendous monster which is really just a guy in a chicken suit.  Cushing plays the passionate professor well here, and more or less revives what he did for Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965) and Daleks Invasion of Earth, 2150 A.D. (1966), two films that were produced the previous decade as a result of the immense popularity of Doctor Who, and the brief Dalek craze. But it hardly matters, the important thing is that Cushing is as adept at humour as he is playing less erratic, more dignified characters. His Dr. Who is often overlooked in histories of the program because his stories are bonus remakes of a couple of the TV stories, and they have their own continuity. But it hardly matters when they’re colourful fun as well. Drop any child in front of the second of those two films in particular, and they’ll be… well, mesmerized.

Looking at his career as an actor, Cushing is a rare actor — a little like that person in high school that was popular and talented, but didn’t care much what crowd he hung around with. He was talented enough for anything, but in decades of horror and fantasy films (beginning with films like Horror of Dracula (1959) never turned in a performance that made it appear he was bored or doing anything less than trying to create a believable character. The same can be said for Christopher Lee, reunited with Cushing for The Creeping Flesh. In fact, the two actors made over twenty films together. Here they play brothers competing for prestige and financial success — Lee runs an asylum, and Cushing is a scientist who brings a remarkable skeleton back from an expedition. Not only is the skeleton unique in appearance, it appears to be  able to grow flesh and regenerate when something as simple as water is poured on it. The Cushing character is likeable, but not perfect, and it is revealed that when he reluctantly sent his wife to the asylum, he hid it from his daughter, telling her instead that her mother was dead. The character repeatedly states that he only wanted to protect his daughter, but remains resolutely stubborn about it, and after a few more misguided decisions the retribution the creature brings makes a certain amount of sense, though only in the unforgiving context of horror films. The Lee character is worse, but predictably enough by the end the creature is revived and walking the earth, and though it’s open-ended as to exactly what this will mean for humanity, maybe that’s all the creature does wherever it goes — tip the balance in favour of a morally unsatisfying result.

These aren’t even career highlights for Cushing. In the 1970s, he’d go on to play a supporting role as a villain in Star Wars (1977) and introduce himself to a whole new audience, and a new generation.

Moon (2009)

June 30, 2009 § Leave a comment

Not to be confused with New Moon (or The Twilight Saga: New Moon), somewhat irritatingly released in the same year, Moon is a low budget but remarkably well made science-fiction film directed and co-written by Duncan Jones.

The premise is quite simple: one lonely, slightly disturbed man (Sam Rockwell, in a great performance) is the sole employee stationed on the moon, key to supplying the earth with most of its power, even as he begins to hallucinate and finally runs into someone else who may or may not be there. There’s no way to explain more without ruining the film, but it’s safe to say solid direction, interesting ideas, a great score and central performance keep it from playing out like an overly long Twilight Zone episode, so that a simple story justifies the  97 minutes. Between the strange, magnetic images director Jones conjures for the hallucination scenes and the music by Clint Mansell, there are some captivating moments — and that’s only the beginning of this intelligent film.

The style does borrow from films like Outland (1981) and 2001 (1968), but if the end result is something original, who cares? Moon is worth the trip, and even manages to look impressive despite a budget of five million dollars.

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