Tag Archives: C+

MAN OF STEEL

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C+

It’s symptomatic of the changes that writer David S. Goyer and director Zach Snyder have made to the traditional Superman mythology in “Man of Steel” that when Jonathan Kent, Clark Kent’s adoptive earth father, dies, it’s not from something as straightforward as the heart attack of the comics (or of Richard Donner’s 1978 “Superman” and the TV series “Smallville”). Instead—and this would count as a minor spoiler, I guess—he’s swept away in a tornado. That allows for a massive special-effects sequence, of the sort that Snyder loves. But bigger isn’t necessarily better, and oddly the result is less emotionally resonant than of old. This rather dour but aggressively whiz-bang take on Superman’s first appearance on earth is intriguing up to a point, but, unlike the twister that carries Pa Kent off, it won’t blow you away.

Note that it is a whole-scale retelling of Big Blue’s origin (and the blue is more prevalent here, with much of the red and yellow removed from his costume)—a reboot rather than the quasi-sequel to the pictures of the seventies and eighties that Bryan Singer’s sadly underrated 2006 “Superman Returns” was. It’s also stylistically very different from Singer’s elegant, graceful, reverential film. It’s far grittier and darker, as one might expect of a picture produced by Christopher Nolan, whose remaking of the Batman myth opted for angst over camp. And though it occasionally tips its hat to the earlier pictures (as in the treatment of a bully early on, which recalls the closing gag to “Superman II,” albeit on a predictably larger scale), it often goes its own way, with alterations to the “canonical” narrative that go beyond mere costume design. It also opts for bombast instead of Singer’s limpid, almost balletic approach; indeed, one of its most prominent qualities is the handheld camerawork of Amir Mokri that renders many of the images as jerky and murky as those you’ll encounter in a low-budget independent movie—but this one reportedly cost nearly $200 million and could certainly have afforded a few tripods. When that’s added to the fact that many of the action sequences, especially in the final half-hour of almost incessant super-fistfights, are shot to appear blurred and indistinct (deliberately, one trusts), it makes for an unsettling—some would argue unpleasant—visual experience. (These remarks are based on the 2D version. The studio wouldn’t allow critics to also check the 3D one for comparative purposes.)

Once you’re past the technical oddities (or infelicities), however, “Man of Steel” turns out to be basically a hybrid of the traditional origin scenario and the Kryptonian-villain plot of “Superman II” in lieu of one featuring the earthling Lex Luthor. That allows for the addition of a large dose of “World of the Wars”-style sci-fi to the mix, with the obvious goal of providing sufficient widespread devastation to satiate the desires of thirteen-year old boys brought up on wildly violent video games.

The first twenty minutes or so are devoted to the final days of Superman’s home planet, Krypton, here portrayed as a dank, imperialistic society that’s colonized other planets while exploiting its own resources so thoroughly that it’s now threatened with imminent destruction. (Kryptonian dystopia is also seen in the fact that children are genetically engineered in some sort of elaborate ultra-“womb” that produces infants predetermined to fit certain social roles.) The only humane, rational person around seems to be stoic, solemn scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe), whose son has uniquely been born naturally and who foresees the planet’s core exploding. When the governing board refuses to listen to him, he prepares a tiny spaceship to send little Kal-El, to earth, carrying—as we later learn—the future hope of Kryptonian society with him. Just as the time comes for launch, the planet’s military chief General Zod (Michael Shannon) attempts a coup, in the course of which he kills Jor-El, but not before Kal-El is on his way. And the coup fails anyway, leaving him are his comrades to be sentenced to icy eternal imprisonment. But serendipitously the planetary cataclysm frees them while the rest of Krypton perishes.

Meanwhile Kal-El reaches his destination and, as we’re shown is a series of jagged flashbacks, learns from his salt-of-the-earth adoptive parents, Kansas farmers Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) to conceal his special powers because the human race would never accept him. That leads the rechristened Clark Kent after Jonathan’s death (now played by handsome, well-muscled Henry Cavill, from “Immortals”) to become a nomad, working menial jobs in remote places only to move on after being compelled by his innate sense of duty to perform some life-saving feat that might unmask him to the world. It’s only after an ancient Kryptonian scout ship is unearthed beneath the polar ice that, in investigating the craft, he learns his real identity (and is given by his father’s scientific shade his Superman duds). There he also encounters intrepid Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams), whom he rescues from the ship’s technology, only to have her track him down afterward. (Goyer and Snyder have no truck with the old comic-book business about her not knowing who Superman is when in his street clothes.)

Unfortunately that scout ship’s homing beacon has alerted Zod to Kal-El’s location, and soon he and his armada have invaded earth space, demanding the Kryptonian’s surrender to them—or else. That initiates the picture’s second half, in which Superman turns himself in to avoid the destruction of his adopted planet, earth authorities dither over whether to hand him over to Zod or not, and the general’s intention to annihilate the human population to make way for a new Kryptonian one leads Superman and the U.S. military to join forces to stop him. Much urban destruction ensues, wrought by a device that Zod unleashes over Metropolis with the unfortunate order “Release the World Bomb!” (or something of the sort)—which anybody who recalls “Clash of the Titans” and its risible “Release the Kraken!” will have trouble hearing without having to suppress a smirk.

To make a long last reel short, there follow many face-offs for Superman, one against femme warrior Faora (Antje Traue) and what appears to be a Gort-like Kryptonian robot, a second against a ship with metallic tentacles that try to strangle him, and a third against Zod himself, which are intercut with human heroics by an assortment of his new earth allies (including Christopher Meloni as an army corporal, Richard Schiff as a scientist and Laurence Fishburne as Daily Planet editor Perry White, as well as Lois of course, who’s been instructed by Jor-El’s shade on how to help), some of which involve shooting the spacecraft that brought Kal-El to earth into that World Bomb like a torpedo. It all ends with a final choice by Superman that’s completely out of character with the Man of Steel’s traditional code, though younger viewers probably won’t mind (while older fans will be appalled), and Clark’s taking a job at the Daily Planet. Cue the prospective sequel.

Nolan and Snyder deserve credit for trying to rethink America’s most venerable superhero in order to make him more relevant to today’s audiences by portraying him as emotionally vulnerable and uncertain of himself—though, to be honest, “Smallville” followed the same trajectory without getting so Dark Knightish about it. And they’ve certainly given it their all in terms of production (even if some of their choices, like the handheld style, seem misguided) and casting (though in a picture like this, the effects become the stars). Cavill is a good-looking Clark/SM, though the plot requires him to remain a pretty dour fellow until the very last scene, when he’s finally allowed a smile. Adams, unfortunately, makes a fairly colorless Lois Lane, though she captures the character’s modern spunkiness well enough. Crowe and Shannon represent two extremes, with the former so rigidly controlled that he comes off as a well-coiffed mannequin and the latter so wildly over-the-top that the result is almost comical in the worst sense. Lane and Costner each get a few moments to shine, and Meloni, Schiff and Fishburne do what’s asked of them, but they’re all pretty standard-issue.

Perhaps Nolan, Snyder and Goyer’s instincts are correct, and “Man of Steel” will prove to be the Superman movie for our time, at least in terms of boxoffice success and franchise potential. But whether that’s true or not, it’s not a Superman for the ages.

NOW YOU SEE ME

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C+

Once upon a time heist movies were about actual human beings pulling off ingenious capers that were explained to the audience in intelligible terms. Even at their most farfetched, the best of them required an inner logic that made them satisfying diversions. Nowadays, however, special effects are the key, and the human element goes pretty much out the window. That’s certainly the case with “Now You See Me,” a fast-moving puzzler that, on a minute to minute basis, is moderately engaging but by the close has become a rather heavy-handed bit of hokum with lots of plot holes left unexplained.

The realm of big-money Vegas magic shows is the milieu the script employs. Four sleight-of-hand artists—arrogant industry staple J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), sarcastic mentalist Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), shapely escape artist Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher) and street practitioner Jack Wilder (Dave Franco)—are recruited by a mysterious mastermind to pull off a series of high-profile acts as a team. Before you can say hocus pocus, they’re bankrolled by international insurance mogul Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine), and after the first show results in the theft of a bundle of Euros from a Paris bank, FBI Agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) is assigned to crack the case, partnered by pretty Interpol representative Alma Dray (Melanie Laurent). For inside information on the tricks of the trade they turn to professional magic debunker Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), who’s made a career of revealing how magicians do what they do to the general public—and has ruined some of them in the process.

But Rhodes still finds himself in over his head, unable to prevent further gambits that result in massive unauthorized bank transfers and the theft of a huge safe from a supposedly secure warehouse. Everything comes to a head in New York City, where the final confrontation involves a fight in an apartment building, a car chase that ends in flames on a bridge, an outdoor rooftop performance attended by thousands of viewers, and a twist that not only reveals the identity of the mastermind behind everything but the motivation as well.

On the most basic terms, the mazelike scenario of “Now You See Me” is a pleasantly convoluted contraption that’s fair enough in what it ladles out about the “why” of what’s happening (indeed, it would take a pretty dense viewer not to know well in advance the motive at work here), but keeps the precise “who” in reserve to the last reel, although the old mystery-story staple of always assuming the least likely person to be the perpetrator remains a safe bet here. But the “how” of each step along the way isn’t always covered satisfactorily. To be sure, Bradley offers blow-by-blow explanations for some of the shenanigans (Freeman’s flashback recitations are reminiscent of the ones George Peppard offered in every episode of the old “Banacek” television series), and they’re nicely edited by Robert Leighton and Vincent Tabaillon. But many other feats are left unexplained (papered over by “magic” effects), and when you come to the end—which also involves some sort of secret association of magicians that’s existed for centuries—the overall scheme, based on coincidence after coincidence and a gargantuan amount of implausibility (not least about the mastermind’s identity), seems in retrospect a very incredible invention indeed.

On the plus side, though the characters are basically caricatures, the cast is agreeable, with Harrelson having a field day as the snide mentalist, Eisenberg replaying his “Social Network” persona to good effect, and Fisher providing nifty eye-candy. Franco gets the short end of the stick among the Four Horsemen, as they’re called, but he handles what the script provides adequately enough. Freeman offers his patented brand of calm smugness, but Caine is wasted in a stock role that frankly doesn’t make much sense—why would such a tycoon bankroll a magic act? Ruffalo appears to be radically overdoing things through much of the running-time as the overexcited FBI man, but there’s a method to his apparent madness, and Laurent is likable romantic interest for him.

Director Louis Leterrier helps matters by staging it all at a lightning pace, in obvious hope that pushing rapidly ahead will keep viewers from thinking too closely about unlikely plot developments. Technically the picture is first-rate, with Michael Amundsen and Larry Fong’s widescreen cinematography giving the images a lush, colorful look and Peter Wenham’s production design effectively elaborate, especially in the highly theatrical scenes of the quartet in performance, where the snazzy lighting effects and whiplash camerawork fulfill their purpose. Brian Tyler’s music score is also appropriately flashy.

“Now You See Me” constantly indulges in the misdirection that Bradley repeatedly refers to as the mainstay of the magician’s art, and as Eisenberg’s Atlas is accustomed to say of any trick, if you look at it too closely you’ll miss the forest for the trees. But though the forest, when it’s revealed at the close, doesn’t really amount to much, the trees afford occasional moments of pleasure along the way.