Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Goodbye Harold Ramis

            I like movies, but there is a particular movie that I have seen probably in the triple digits, and that is "Ghostbusters".  One of its stars, Harold Ramis, died in the immediate past.  And I feel bad.  I still consider him to be one of my influences of saying something that spells doom or plight with a dry delivery and a smirk.  He was (and his stuff still is) funny.

            Here is the thing, he lived a full life, filled with interesting people.  Ramis was able to express himself creatively far more than most people ever will be able to.  He was wealthy, happy, and made others happy.  We can talk about it being too soon, but it was a life well lived and he was old.  He lived a lot more than most people could ever hope to.  I admire his creativity a great deal, and am glad he lived.

He did other stuff aside from "Ghostbusters", and it is also good.
            Aside from his family who feels the loss of his life personally and is in need of sympathy, people who like comedy in general should feel glad that he lived, and thankful, and that should be the end of it.  His work will not disappear, his place in my childhood will not scab over.

            This is actually one of many celebrity deaths that have happened in my life, and the last one I really remember was Paul Walker, whose creative work was abysmal and should not be what he is remembered for, instead his charitable work is a much greater contribution to society and what should be lauded.

            This stuff happens.  Sooner or later Samuel L Jackson is going to "Mother" his last "Fucker", and Patrick Stewart is not going to be able to quote Macbeth while wearing an X-Men costume.  People die, but their contributions can and will be respectfully remembered just like every person's should be... and the shit stuff they do should be remembered too.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Movies of 2013, Science Fiction, pt2

Science Fiction
Star Trek Into Darkness, or "Damon Lindelof seriously needs to stop 'contributing' to franchises I like."
Overall: 6/10
Most of the posters suck.  This one is okay.
            I have talked about this movie before.  And have emphasized its studded nature.  The idea that it has a lot of symbols and iconography to give it the semblance of meaning without actually being meaningful.  This is practically the trademark of Damon Lindelof, creator of "Lost", whose one true gift if giving characters distinctive voices, and whose much lesser gift is throwing a lot of shit at the wall to see if it sticks.
            This movie has more twists than pretzel bread, and each makes less sense than the last.  It robs itself of emotional and intellectual resonance by immediately undoing huge plot developments.  Background characters have more visual personality than the main hero, leaving me wanting to hear their story rather than another story about Kirk.  And you know what, I am kind of tired of these characters.  I am a huge fan of all of these actors, but I am tired of these characters because the reboot is doing nothing with them.
            Christopher Nolan took a 70 year old comic book franchise and used it for complex discussions about perseverance, iconography, order and chaos, the nature of fear, and the role of security and privacy.  "Star Trek Into Darkness" rehashes stories and ideas to say nothing.  The idea of WMD's and terrorism were done better in the "Iron Man" franchise.  The idea of a villain who is out to protect his people was done better in the "X-Men" franchise.  "Star Trek" (2009) was given a pass on saying anything because it was a reboot, it showed the new visuals, it showed the new tone, it introduced the characters, this movie does not have that excuse, and by putting in shit like a tribble, and rambling about the Prime Directive makes this movie really stupid regardless of how pretty, exciting, or well acted.  That is not okay.
            Either have it be a fun adventure movie, or have a movie with intrigue and complex discussions, having both is like mixing ice cream and mashed potatoes.  It doesn't work!  At least not on any level that will last or stick with the audience.

Ender's Game, or "Would I like this movie better if I had not read the book?"
Overall: 6/10
Posters are overall better for this movie.  But some of them suck a lot.
            Compliment 1: This is a visual triumph.
            And it is kind of distracting.  When reading the book the video games and simulations are barely described, I personally imagined them as something like 3D "Dig Dug" and "Space Invaders", games that are not about graphical presentation but about teaching the mechanics of the game and developing a skill set related to them (a completely useless skill set for the real world, but a skill set).  I guess the filmmakers had the freedom to make the video games and simulations look however they wanted, but when everything looks so real, it is really hard to believe the twist that they tried to throw at the end.  The idea that Ender would have believed what they said he believed is preposterous when looking at this stuff.  It undercuts the movie's message for the sake of looking much cooler.
            SPOILER (skip to next compliment): There is of course a way they could have done both things, show them playing simple games at first, and then after they reveal what those games were really about flash to the actual battle and show it.  It would have helped to illustrate Ender's revelation at what he had done.
I am having Deja vu again.
Is there only one art department doing spaceship designs now?

            Compliment 2: The story is technically proficient.
            There is a set up and pay off that existed in the novel, the use of human shields later pays off in the use of space ships to protect a particular weapon.  But elements of the story, numerous conversations about the ethics of using Ender like they did, and nearly everything having to do with the tertiary characters is lost, the story is proficient, but bare bones when it comes to introspection and insight.
            Compliment 3: The acting is not nearly as bad as I had been told to expect.
            Butterfield is the bedrock the movie is built on and he is a really good actor, they actually step on his acting at one point by talking over a moment of epiphany, but overall he is really good, and deserves more credit for adding depth to a script that does not have a lot of clever dialogue.  Ben Kingsley commits to his part really well, and shows a level of true professionalism that can be missed when huge talented actors get roles in science-fiction-or-fantasy-coming-of-age stories (which is a genre that is surprisingly robust).  And Harrison Ford, is kind of wasted, growly and pissed are the emotions that come across, but there was a sort of tough love that the role called for that I did not feel come through, he doesn't interact with Ender in way that shows the complexity of that relationship, really he needed a lot more to work with.
            No more compliments.
            That is pretty much the end of the good things I have to say.  This movie is kind of a turkey, especially when compared to the book which is a god damn masterpiece.  It has pacing issues that nearly kill it.  Characters are introduced and dismissed so quickly that they can hardly been said to have existed at all.  And while I can understand that removing the plot about Ender's siblings conquering the world via effective blogging (symbolically mirroring how Ender is coming to terms with his own duality as a killer and compassionate leader, it is a METAPHOR), the fact is, nothing is given time to sink in, nothing is given time to be understood on a level deeper than skin.  Also, the actress that plays Ender's sister, Valentine, has to angrily storm out of a room in one of her two scenes and she looks funny doing it, kind of killed the scene.
            There is also a slapped on environmental message about how the aliens are invading Earth because they need water... Which is stupid horseshit.  Water is an incredibly abundant substance that can be harvested from space (something we see the aliens doing in the movie), there is no reason to talk about scarcity in regards to a civilization that has interstellar travel.  Much like the needless pollution and global warming crap from "Pacific Rim", and the kind of pointless environmental message of Krypton's destruction in "Man of Steel", this is out of place in here.
            There is also a major omission from the book in the number of times Earth was invaded by the Aliens, and why Earth thinks that attacking in an all out scorched world strategy is so necessary to secure the safety of the human species.  In the movie there was one invasion, in the book there had been two.  And while the near annihilation of the Earth in the movie is shown to be a strong motivator for a counter attack, Ender brings up a point that is never properly addressed, "Why have the aliens built up a huge fleet, and not attack Earth again?"  It is explained in the book, not in the movie.  That is a problem with the narrative on a deeper level than it should be because it robs the military of a good bit of justification for what they end up doing.
            Another problem is with the training.  In the book, you understand what is happening, the rules, and why it works the way it does.  You also understand how and why Ender is seen as good and smart because of how he changes the way the game is played through exploiting rules and mechanics.  The movie doesn't explain the game well, so when Ender starts winning it comes off as an attributed ability, rather than a demonstrated ability (which breaks the rule of movie making, "SHOW DON'T TELL").  For a movie that is so visually rich this should not be an issue.
            Also, it is yet another movie that walks up to an important line of violence, and then backpedals.  In the book Ender murders another child that is physically abusing him.  And later on he murders another child.  Ender doesn't intend either murder, he is just fighting hard and without restraint to secure his own safety, this movie has him violently win a fight, but does not have that core idea, it doesn't kill the kids, and those actions foreshadow other events in the narrative that are important.  If you are committed to not showing this sort of violence then you should not make the movie.

            Overall, this should have been a cartoon series, giving it time to do all it needs to do rather than the extremely condensed narrative that it is.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Movies of 2013, Science Fiction, pt1

Science Fiction
            I like Dystopias.  I have talked about this in the past and keep coming back to it.  I find it hilarious that in the 40's 1984 was considered the height of controversy because it depicted a future that was not bright and shiny because Orwell had the audacity to say Communism was bad (even though that book could just as easily be about Capitalism, not a lot of detail is put into the economy of a world in which the main focus seems to be a media retarding people through telling them what to think).  In modern society dystopias are all over the place and have been since "Bladerunner" became the most overrated movie in nerd culture.

Overall: 6/10
Also, boring, boring posters.
            I would not call director Neill Blomkamp's first movie, "District 9" subtle, but compared to this it was cloaked in shadow and obscurity.
            The bad guys are cartoonish in their evil... Actually that is a disservice to Ursalla and Cruella de Vil.  The bad guys are so evil that it kills your ability to buy into the movie.
            In Greek mythology the Fields of Elysium was a sort of heaven that existed beyond the horizon where great heroes went to live forever in legend.  And I guess this movie does sort of acknowledge that Greek mythology exalted "virtues" that were at best questionable, with greed, glory, and self aggrandizing being seen as noble... This movie gets that right.
            The science fiction element doesn't really make much sense because the metaphor is stretched past the breaking point.  They have humanoid robots with super strength that can comprehend complex tasks... Why is there any menial labor left on Earth?  Just have the robots do it.  Instead they have the robots doing the LAST THING YOU EVER WANT ROBOTS DOING, oppressing humans with violence.
            Moving past that the reason people on Earth want to go to Elysium isn't for work, or luxury, it is instead to get one use out of magical super beds that sure all disease and cure all injuries... Okay, I get it.  Universal health care.  Here is the thing, if such a device existed they would just set them up on street corners like phone booths, have you swipe your credit card, and charge you a fee for their use.  They have hospitals and a pharmaceutical industry on Earth, but why not just have a bunch of these magical super beds in the hospitals?
            Monetizing the magic beds is easy to figure out.  Take the cost of the machine, divide that by the number of typical uses you get out of the machine, then figure how much it would cost to pay a technician to maintain and operate the machine (which are household items that operate automatically on Elysium), add on a small mark up for profit purposes (10-15 percent) and then just have people use them.  No pill deliveries, or sorting, doctors and nurses would exist in far fewer numbers, no other medical devices of any type.  This movie presents a potentially post scarcity society and then pretends scarcity still exists.
            Then there is a radiation scene.  At one point Matt Damon accidently gets trapped in a chamber that irradiates him... What that chamber exists to do is unclear because all it seems to do is fill with radiation.  (Is it a giant microwave?)  Anyway, one of the villains of the movie is sees that the factory Damon is working in has stopped operations because of the accident, and the villain complains that things shouldn't stop and orders them to start cranking out more material.  This is sort of reminiscent of "The Jungle" in that on the job injuries happening during the Gilded Age would be met with a "back to work" by management (there is a reason Anarchism was a mainstream movement at one point), but this movie takes place in the future, in which lawsuits presumably still exist, shouldn't he be pissed that he is about to get sued out of his suit?  If anything Damon should be happy, getting irradiated would mean a lawsuit big enough to go to Elysium, get a cure, and live happily ever after.  But apparently Morgan and Morgan up and vanished at some point.
            The need of metaphor... Science breaks down as you approach the needs of the story.
            This is a mostly cool, and mostly miscast film.  Matt Damon seemed out of place and they probably stuck him and Jodie Foster in for name recognition, but neither seem right for the part, and since Foster is so evil and there is no complexity to the issue it just comes off as really dumb.

Catching Fire, or "We Are the 99%."
Overall: 9/10
Actually, there are dozens of posters for this movie, many are awesome, others are like a set of trading cards for characters fighting each other in the movie.
            The fact that this movie was good shocked me.  I thought the first film was at best passing with camera work that was so frantic that I found myself looking away from the screen (though I consider the book, "The Hunger Games" to be one of my all time favorites).  This movie totally fixes the problem of the screen shaking like Michael J Fox is the cameraman.
            Beyond that this movie has more scope, higher stakes, lots of cool characters with a great deal of visual personality.  There is a scene in which a guy is tied to a post and whipped by some military police, and guy with the scourge has flecks of blood on his face from the flipping the whip around.  Not to say all the violence is so poignant, the hero of the film shoots people with arrows, but there isn't a lot of blood.
            There is another instance in which a character curses out the audience for having to compete in the titular Hunger Games, and her swearing is censored... a world in which "vulgarity" is censored but in which teenagers are murdered by one another on live television and it is state policy that people must watch?  Wouldn't you hate to be in a world in which violence was okay, but speaking your mind is impolite?  I know such a world is one I wouldn't want to be in.
            Also, the main character of Katniss is great.  She is kind of a stand off bitch because she grew up in poverty, her Dad died tragically working a job that is miserable, and her Mom couldn't handle that shit; Katniss grew up too fast and in a world with too little love, which makes her emotionally retarded.  It is wonderful.  You never see women in this sort of role and they got probably the best actress of her generation, Jennifer "I'm kind of a weirdo and dingbat" Lawrence to play the character.
            There is one bigger break down in reality though that comes with all science fiction.  District 12 is a poor area that mines coal, no one else mines coal, and the coal goes somewhere and is used for something (presumably power).  This means that the economy has use or even need for coal.  So how can the Capital threaten District 12 (or any district) with annihilation?  Each district produces something that the other districts do not produce, so they are needed.  I guess they could just use something other than coal for power... Which makes me ask why they mine coal at all.  It is in a way the same issue that "Elysium" has, that there is technology with higher utility that isn't being used... for no reason.  But since that is not the thrust of the movie (violence and politics as entertainment is) the technical issues of the fictional economy is easier to ignore.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Movies of 2013, Superhero, pt4

The Wolverine, or "Really?  Have we not had enough of Wolverine yet?"
Overall: 6/10
Hugh, buddy.  Can you stop looking amazing?  Kind of setting the bar for guys like me a little high.
            I enjoyed this movie a hell of a lot more than I thought I would.  They give Wolverine a sidekick to play off of, though the actress' hair is weird (I like the color, but her bangs are sideways or something, and her eyes are super wide, I don't know why, she just looks odd).  They give him an enemy with a clear motivation and resources to pose an actual threat, they have tertiary villains with interesting and distinct looks, action sequences that are varied in execution (if not color scheme, metal and black are the colors of this movie to the point of being kind of annoying).  Now to the real complaints.
            Problem 1: The love interest.
            Wolverine does not need a love interest, he is a knight errant, he does extreme violence to serve his personal code of honor but never feels tied down (that is his character).  Yeah, sure he beds women when the opportunity presents itself, but the love affair in this movie does not work.  There is no chemistry and the speed of the situation does not behoove the development of feelings.  He is a violent, headstrong, culturally insensitive thug who kills people by the bus load in this film... There is no reason for the woman who he bangs to be attached to him.  Also, he is old, like 100+, he should not be banging a 20 something unless she shows real emotional depth and maturity (this one does not).  It is the Edward and Bella problem of modern romantic subplots.
            Problem 2: This movie has terrible gameplay.
            The movie is ordered like a video game, Wolverine fights hillbillies, then mobsters, then mobster hit men on a train (boss fight), then ninjas, then a master sword fighter (boss fight), more ninjas on their home turf, a snake lady, and then a giant mecha (that can cut thru his bones and drain his powers, bigger boss fight).  He even gets a lot of his powers toned down to add tension (as if the protection of the various vulnerable squishy humans was not enough to add tension... It doesn't because they are paper thin characters, but it could have).  I am not even sure this can be considered a complaint, because I thought the variety of fights worked to a benefit, but it is oddly structured for a movie narrative.
            Problem 3: Dulling of claws.
            There are plenty of scenes in which Wolverine kills people who are actively harming other people.  LOTS OF MOBSTERS DIE POINTY DEATHS.  But there is a scene which I felt was really bad and kind of dulled the movie.  Wolverine captures a police official who is helping the mafia, then interrogates him in a cool funny scene, he then throws the asshole off a hotel balcony.  That is awesome.  But (and I am sure this is what happened), since you can't have the hero of a PG-13 movie kill a helpless guy in an awesome fashion (unlike, say, "DREDD"), we instead see that the guy fell into a pool that Wolverine claims to have not known about.
            Here is the thing.  If you are going to not kill the bad guy, having the hero say, "What pool?" makes him seem dumb in addition to ruthless.  Either have him kill the guy to show he means business, or have him throw the guy into a pool just to scare him.  Trying to have your cake and eat it too doesn't work.
           Problem 4: Wolverine is played out.
This follows what I consider to be the best scene in the movie in which he cuts out his own heart.
Similar to that only good scene in "Prometheus".
            I like Wolverine a good bit, he has a distinctive power set of indestructible man with knifes for hands, he has a cool back story of mysterious soldier of fortune, and he is part of a disaffected minority (Canadians).  But he has been the star of 5/6 X-Men films, and we have seen nearly every aspect of his life and all the interactions he has had between numerous characters, be they romantic rivals (Cyclopes), kid side kicks (Rogue), professional rivals (Sabretooth), authority figures (Prof X, Stryker), and comrades in arms (Storm, Wraith).  Can we get a movie that focuses on the actual main conflict of X-Men... in addition to "First Class"?
            The end of this movie is actually a microcosm of the issues, the movie ends with Wolverine getting on a plane with his new sidekick with no direction.  Then the after the credits sequence skips ahead a couple years (his sidekick now gone, we never learn of her fate.  Dead?  Back in Japan?  Who knows?)  And there is Magneto (with his powers returned) and Prof X (now no longer a pile of dust).  Wolverine has no reason to be a part of their story, and his story is so unimportant that it is dropped so he can be pulled into X-Men drama.  Why?  Let him go.  If you want to make Wolverine movies, then make them and let the X-Men do their thing, they have enough interesting characters that are thirsty for screen time that you don't need Logan to be there.

Kick-Ass 2, or "Rape isn't funny.  How about attempted rape?  Wait, why are we trying to make that scene funny?"
Overall: 5/10
Ironically if Hit Girl were real and watched this movie she would probably call it pussy footing bullshit.
            This movie skull fucks my sense of reason because it is really hard to evaluate on its own.  I have to look at it as both a sequel to the first movie, as an adaptation of the book, and how it stands on its own, but I don't know how to reconcile all of those parts in a meaningful way.  There are lots of things about it I would like if it were in a different movie, and there are lots of things I hate because they are in this movie, or because they short change the books.  I don't know.
            The first "Kick Ass" was alright and had a lot of problems, mostly with the subject matter itself.  And this continues that grand tradition.
            In regards to being a sequel to the first movie, there are issues with continuity, like how they ditch Kick-Ass' girlfriend (who knows he is Kick-Ass in the movies, and should trust that he is not fucking the now 14 year old Hit Girl, but for the sake of the story calls him a pervert and ditches him).  And the movie has lots of little things like that, especially in the glorification of Big Daddy who should be seen less as a hero and more of a complex figure, if not an outright monster like he was in the comics.
            This movie does something the books did not do, attempts to show the villain's journey in addition to the heroes'.  I don't think that works.  Trying to rape a female superhero and failing because he is so impotent isn't funny.  Either have the guts to have rape, or don't.  Being too flaccid to actually follow thru just serves as metaphor for the movie as a whole.  Constantly backing away from the violence of the comic in favor of soft and goofy action that doesn't work.  It Feels weird to call it soft when you consider the amount of murder and blood in this.  I would compare it to "the Walking Dead" TV show, which is so loosely based on the comics that I find it to be odd to watch, the violence in it is just not hard enough, it lacks the shock and terror it could have.  It is 'meh'.
            On its own, as if I had not read the books or seen the first one, I still have issues again with Hit Girl being too grown up on certain subjects.  She is a psychopath.  Just because she has the ability to kill the bad guy does not make her "mature" or capable of healthily expressing emotion, but if anything they make her far too dutiful and reasonable.  She should be a broken person, but instead they play her up as a hero or role model.  That does not work.  They almost show her as she should be, but again they dial it back.  It fails.

            I can't believe I am saying this, but "The Wolverine" fits better into his crazy and poorly thought out mythos than this movie fits into its own.  Which considering it is the second movie and is based on a comic series that only consists of "Kick Ass" and "Kick Ass 2" how is that possible?  How can you eschew things so completely?  How is it this jumbled?
            There is also the controversy of Jim Carrey, who plays an interesting character rethinking his stance on violence in the media because of the recent mass shootings.  Jim believed that he should not promote the film because of its violence (even though his character in the movie is a staunch opponent of gun violence being a former hitman turned born again Christian).  If I had to guess Jim made this known to do two things: one, settle his conscience for participating in a movie that both glorifies violence while portraying it as not terribly dangerous; and two, stir some controversy because he did not want to torpedo the work of his costars.  Cause things are complicated.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Movies 2013, Superhero, pt3, Thor

Yesterday I went into the other weird alien in a red cape.  Today I walk about the Space Viking.

Thor the Dark World, or "What if 'Man of Steel' hadn't taken itself so damn seriously."
Overall: 8/10
He's adopted.
            In some ways this was the best movie I saw last year.  It has grand stakes (the fate of the universe), it has numerous environments (alien worlds, cities of the gods), cool costuming, and it is funny.
            Thor as a hero has grown in the movies he has been in, from headstrong naive warrior to a much more deliberate and capable leader.  Stand this in contrast to Tony Stark in "Iron Man 3" which failed to confront his underlying insecurities almost entirely until the last few minutes of the third movie, symbolically removing the broken shards of metal in his heart that were killing him and discarding the thick metal skin that he used to protect himself from the world.  Thor completed that character arc by the end of his first movie, softening and becoming more about self sacrifice rather than personal glory, and by the end of "The Avengers" Thor was on a crusade to bring order to his kingdom.  By the end of this film he has become such a knight errant romantic that he decides not to take the throne of his homeland, Asgard, instead going to Earth for love (people claim that this love plot happens too fast and won't last.... To which I answer, all gods in all mythologies have the exact same attitudes toward love: fast and fleeting).
            Thor's numerous Space Viking sidekicks also each get their moments, though really they could have gotten more, doing all their heavy lifting in acts one and two then disappearing... In many ways the third act is both the most exciting because of the action, and the most boring because the character interactions are all about fighting the bad guys and not about any sort of interpersonal dynamic (though two of Jane Foster's sidekicks kind of get together in a comedic romantic development).
            That brings me to my next point, Malekith the Accursed is a boring villain, he is a very standard evil doer wanting to take the magical item from the non-warrior protagonist, and use it to cloak the world in darkness for his people and way of life.  He is a step down from the Mandarin, which is a parody of Malekith's type, and is an elevator trip away from Loki, who is a far more interesting character.  I actually think you could have given even less time to the elves and more time to Loki and the movie would still not have suffered.
            THE DOUBLE BEAT.  Much like "Man of Steel" this movie has a real problem with a scene in the second act and the opener.  The opening is a full blown war between Space Vikings and Space Elves for control of the universe (HOLY CRAP "LORD OF THE RINGS") with narration by Odin, explanations of the threats posed by the bad guys and clear explanations of their motivations.  Then in the second act Odin tells the protagonist Thor and Jane what was already shown to the audience in the opening scene.  Again, much like "Man of Steel" the presentation is very pretty with magical books with moving stylized illustrations.  Gorgeous really, and a total waste of time.  They could have fixed this too, don't have the battle opening, the heroes confronting weird aliens, and then having giant black ships that can turn invisible mysteriously appear and attack, then have hulking monsters, and magical swirling blood all without an upfront explanation... it would add a lot of mystery.  Then in the second act after the initial attack have the magic books open with all of their cool illustrations on display and then transition to show the battle in narrated historical reenactment.  That way for the first half of the movie the heroes are under threat from an unknown and powerful force that they don't understand, and the audience is on that journey with them.  But whatever.
            Another problem is with yet another case of hack job writing just like in "Man of Steel", maybe even more so.  "Star Trek" 2009 had a pointy eared villain in a big black powerful spaceship, with a red weapon capable of causing the apocalypse for an multi-world empire, this culminates with the blonde head strong hero (whose father was killed by the villain) and his dark haired emotionally damaged second in command (because the bad guy killed his Mom) using black holes to kill the bad guy.  "Thor the Dark World" has a pointy eared bad guy in a big black sometimes invisible spaceship, with a red weapon capable of causing the apocalypse for a multi-world empire (and the universe), this culminates with the blonde head strong hero (whose mother was killed by the bad guy) and his dark haired emotionally erratic reluctant ally (whose mother was killed by the bad guy) to use portals to other worlds to try and stop the villain.  Soon all action movies will have this or a similar dynamic, because if it can make the boring old Star Trek franchise into profitable action schlock it can work for any damn thing.

Their ear mutilation is even the same.
Who needs emotional stability to be in charge?
            Regardless, this movie has a very light tone to it, mostly good pacing, lots of distinct characters with a variety of design and flourish, a complex brother and father dynamic at the core, with a romantic science vs magic theme surrounding it.  It is fun and does not diminish its characters, it tries (and for the most part is successful) in elevating the various characters, adding to the script rather than detracting.  And as a small final compliment, I like how in the climax Jane foster does not just get saved, she uses her scientific knowledge to make weapons and contribute to the action, ultimately providing Thor the means to beat the bad guy (SPOILERS: the bad guy loses), she has her own side kicks, it is cool to see her as a sort of hero in her own right.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Movies of 2013, Superhero, pt2, Superman

Man of Steel, or "Holy shit?  Did Superman just...?"
Overall: 6/10
Why don't they just put a halo over his head?  The Christ imagery is thick as any movie I have seen in years.
            I have written about this movie before and what I was really stunned by is how it compares to "Thor the Dark World" which came out later that same year and I will discuss tomorrow (because this review ran really long).  "Man of Steel" is just fine.  It is probably the most expensive film I have ever seen that I have reacted this 'meh' to, though I liked it a lot more when I initially saw it because I thought (and still do think) that it has the single best action sequence of the year involving the devastation of Smallville.  There are numerous issues, most of which have been hit on a lot by different people but I have at least one that I haven't seen anybody else write/talk about which I will get into too.

Problem 1: Lois Lane and everyone at the Daily Planet is completely useless.
            These guys should not have been in the movie at all.  While Amy Adams is a great actress, and Laurence Fishburne is a great guy to play Perry White, my point is that they have no point.  Literally everything they do could have been done by someone else to greater effect, or left out of this movie entirely and put into the sequel.
            For instance, Lois shows up at an archeological dig in the frozen north for a 20,000 year old alien craft, Clark is there because he thinks (and is right) that it is connected to his mysterious origins on a world unknown.  Lois goes out at night and finds Clark digging his way through the ice to the ship, she is attacked by the ship's security, Clark rescues her and then takes the ship and leaves her behind.  The real issue here: why did that have to be Lois?
            There is another character named Dr. Hamilton, played by an Emmy Winner, Richard Schiff who would have filled this story role much better.  A scientist that follows the mysterious alien to an ancient ship.  Follow that up later in the movie when General Zod takes Superman prisoner, and inexplicably takes Lois too.  Why?  She has no value, instead have Hamilton ask to be taken along, that he wants to see this alien society with alien technology and be an ambassador from Earth.  Zod would allow such an envoy because he wants Hamilton to relay what is coming to Earth authorities when he does attack (cause Zod is a dick).  Instead you have Lois along for adventures that she contributes nothing to, relaying information she can't understand between characters who could just talk to each other..
            By beefing up Hamilton's role it would also complete the themes of Father figures offering Superman choices in the movie, Jor-El the scientist telling him to be a messiah, Jonathan Kent the human telling him to live his own life, and then Dr. Hamilton the human scientist offering a compromise of being both a man, Clark, and a hero, Superman.
More time with these guys would have been better than the completely useless time spent at the Planet.
            The scenes in which Lois investigates and finds Superman in Smallville could have been the opener to the next movie, having a crafty reporter recap the events of the first movie while seeking out the hero and then offering to help him become a part of the world rather than some mysterious savior would do a lot to help the hypothetical second film shift into gear.

Problem 2: Metropolis was totally pointless.
            Zod is supposed to be a tactical genius with a technological advantage over those he is at war with (Earth) so why is he situating his key piece of technology (the key to his whole plan) in a major metropolitan area in which it could be exposed to attack by the most powerful military on the planet?  Why not park the things at the north and south poles?  It would take hours for American or Russian military weapons to be brought to bear against him, by which time the gravity weapon would have such a huge wake that no plane could fly in it, and no missile could be modified to target it (missile targeting depends on gravity working a consistent and certain way).
            Heck have it in Smallville, the idea of Superman's Earth life being literally smashed to nothing by the gravity of finding who he is would be a really good METAPHOR with a lot of emotional resonance and have just as many tactical issues as attacking Metropolis.  And the destruction of Smallville in this movie would prompt Clark to move to the big city in the second movie.

Problem 3: Lara Lor-Van of Krypton is completely useless.
            Aside from giving birth to Clark the role of Superman's Mom in the story is... Couldn't tell you.  To look stoic while her home planet explodes with her on it.  Compare this with Freya's role in "Thor the Dark World" (SPOILERS for Thor 2; go watch Thor 2, it is a lot of fun and has a lot working for it).

Well, I was a well developed character.
            To skip spoilers continue to my next problem.  In "Thor the Dark World" Frigga, Thor's Mom takes it upon herself to protect Jane Foster, Thor's girlfriend who is the designated MacGuffin carrier.  Freya fights against and nearly kills the main villain of the film and is only undone by the biggest physical threat seen in the movies aside from the Hulk.  Frigga is crafty, smart, has good (albeit limited) character interaction with the main characters, she has traits and a role in the story to die heroically trying to protect the universe from ruin and darkness.  Freya is cool.  Lara is not.
            How would you fix Lara?  Make her a warrior.  On Krypton people are not born, they are created and grown for purposes.  You could be designed to be a scientist, laborer, leader, soldier, or whatever.  Superman's Dad, Jor-El is a scientist, and somehow he manages to kick several soldiers' asses at a time and go on daring adventures... Let's not have him do that.  Let's have Lara do that.  Have her be a member of the warrior class, same as General Zod, and another symbol of duality in Superman, he is the child of two forbidden lovers, one a scientist, the other a warrior, it would also so Krypton to be more divergent from Earth toward gender roles, that being a man or woman does not mean one thing or the other, a concept only hinted at with the villain Faora.
            This could also add an element to Zod disliking Jor-El, that Lara was a good soldier till she met Jor-El and then left Zod's army.  It might also explain why Lara does not appear as a hologram later in the movie, that she (not Jor-El) was busy fighting Zod and buying time for Jor-El to get baby Superman on his rocket ship, so Jor-El did not get a chance to scan her into the program, currently it just looks like Jor-El left her out for no reason.  Lara is the most underused character in the movie.

Problem 4: Krypton's gloomy look.
            Krypton is the most well known planet in popular fiction aside from Planet X, which is actually just a generic catch all term for a hypothetical 10th planet in our solar system.  Having existed for 70 years Krypton has been drawn hundreds of times by a multitude of artists who have seen it as a world of crystal, a world of brightly colored tights, or in this case a world of very cold metal.
Seriously, when everything about the culture screams evil, you feel less bad that they are all dead.
            This is really the least of my problems with the movie.  My personal favorite look for Krypton is from the Animated Series in the 90's, or the goofy but shameless look in the "All Star Superman" comic from which some of Jor-El's dialogue is directly lifted.
            This is not the only movie out there going for Alien = Dark, and so it does not set itself apart from the pack.  "Star Trek" in 2009 turned heads by having everything incredibly white and shiny (hard to keep clean, looks like Apple took over) but it was eye catching and you felt like it was a bright shiny future worth saving.  In fact that is another good comparison, in "Star Trek" the main bad guy comes from a doomed plant in a dark ship that has a squid or spider like design and uses a gravity weapon to destroy of world full of people; "Man of Steel" has a villain from a doomed planet in a dark ship that has a spider or squid like appearance and he uses a gravity weapon to try and commit planetary genocide... Hell, the climax of each movie involves hitting the big unstoppable ship with a tiny ship causing the big ship to be sucked out of reality by a black hole... Fuck, that is some lazy hack writing when you get down to it.
Okay, Zod has far fewer tentacles/legs on his ship.
And come on, this space beam is orange... Not Blue!  Come on, totally not the same.
            Maybe having the main bad guys, General Zod and company show up dressed like they are going to fight "Flash Gordon" might have seemed silly, but isn't that kind of interesting?  Invasion of the goofy aliens sounds cool to me in an age of cynical and grim dark.

Problem 5: The double beat.
            The first 20 minutes of this movie is Krypton getting obliterated and having a civil war at the same time.  It is a weird alien planet with elements borrowed from "Avatar" mixed with "Alien", that is fine (even if it did not appeal to me it is a fine way for there to be an authorial stamp of those making the movie, "our Krypton is different").
            At the midpoint of the movie Clark discovers a spaceship that has a hologram Jor-El tell him about Krypton's obliteration and civil war... This is called a double beat, explaining something to the audience something they saw or have already had explained to them.  The effects and art direction of the scene are beautiful, using no color but clever moving relief sculpture to illustrate the war... Hell, this could have been the only thing we see of the destruction of Krypton, cutting out the whole opening, which is ultimately filler.  The fact is, pick one or the other, having both does only one thing: it kills the movie's momentum.
            To fix this scene you have to have Jor-El say, "I must explain to you about the end of Krypton and why you are here on Earth."  Then cut to something else.  The ship warming up to fly away, Zod's ship appearing at the edge of our solar system, Dr. Hamilton analyzing something.  But you do not explain to the audience a second time something they already know.  It is a waste of time.

Problem 6: Most of the fights.
            The fight in Smallville is the highlight of the movie and steals the thunder from all other encounters.  It is fast, destructive, showcases Superman's strength and speed, and displays the threat Zod's forces present to the Earth.  Zod's forces are fast, strong, and have training as soldiers, allowing them to use martial arts and group tactics to effect; but contrast, Superman is faster, stronger, can fly, has super senses and heat vision, but is limited by lack of training (who needs to learn wrist locks or effective punching when you can bend metal by flexing your toes)?  The Smallville throw down is amazing and showcases better than any other movie superheroic action with modern special effects.
This was the turning point of the movie, When a pilot gets vaporized into bloody mist by a Kryptonian soldier.
            The fight immediately after word is between Superman and robot tentacles in the middle of the Indian Ocean.  Here is the thing, they probably did this to shake up how and what Superman was fighting, much like how "Iron Man 3" has him fighting in a small town bar, catching people as they fall out of a plane, or an oil rig.  Visual variety is important in keeping the audience engaged, and is a big part of why the Smallville fight is so cool: Gas Station, Main Street, Department Store, Diner, Train Station, Bank, Corn Field, Farm (also allows for criminal amounts of product placement, even though Sears and IHOP do exist, so it is product placement that doesn't feel all that out of place).
            Smallville has so much to look at, so much to throw, to hit, to break, and things to be broken over, it offers a lot of destruction in an area that looks lived in and people can see themselves living in.  The middle of the ocean has no visual variety, and the tentacles just swirl around and try to ensnare.  The Tentacles are boring.
            Honestly the Smallville fight should have been the end of the movie.  Metropolis, while offering untold carnage is visually boring, dozens of buildings are falling over (cool, yes) but they all might as well be identical, none of them has visual personality or a sense of reality, they are just really big grey, and seemingly empty buildings.  Compare this to "The Avengers" which has Captain America killing aliens in an attempt to stop a massacre of civilians in a random lobby, and how (in spite of being filmed in Cleveland) the movie showcases real buildings that have a variety of visuals to them.  Hell, the part where the Hulk races through a populated office building knocking through cubicles and around people, jumping through a window and tackling a space dragon to keep it from slamming into the building and killing everyone is great, it shows signs of life and stakes.
            The final end of the movie (the most controversial thing about it) only works because Superman and Zod's fight terminates in a structure that has people in it that are in peril because of Zod, the gravity of the situation is shown on the micro level instead of just a giant smoking crater.  Where as the Smallville fight has people everywhere, feet away from soldiers getting obliterated by Faora, an awesome foe who is not named Ursa for some reason.

            And I don't know why so many action sequences seem so empty, Zack Snyder was smart to show the home front in "300", Nolan showed in the "The Dark Knight" that there were people everywhere for Batman to rescue, and David Goyer had Blade rescuing people in "Blade" several times.  All of the creative team have managed to capture the human element in their past movies, so why is it hit or miss here?