Man of Steel by Zack Snyder

Man of Steel by Zack Snyder

A young Clark Kent is forced to confront his secret extraterrestrial heritage when Earth is invaded by members of his race.

The story of Superman, a character created during World War II, is dated by today’s standards. The fragility of his dual identity is never touched upon. The supposed smart career woman who he’s in love with never sees through his disguise as Clark Kent. He’s all powerful, doesn’t lie and always does the right thing. Nothing can physically hurt him except Kryptonite. How do you find conflict for this character? How can he grow? What is there for him to learn? This makes Superman a writer’s nightmare. The original material has written itself into a corner. It’s clear that the filmmakers’ goal was to undo many of these trappings and update Superman to a real modern context. Content aside, I’m a Christopher Nolan fan but I have never liked any of Zack Snyder’s films. What would be the end result of a Nolan-produced Zack Snyder production? Would they accomplish their goals? Is this vision of Superman going to be entertaining? This left me going in with an open mind.

Henry Cavill makes both a great Clark Kent and Superman. Surprisingly much of it is a silent performance, as he has minimal dialogue and communicates a lot of the inner turmoil through his face. The story gives him a lot to play and watching Clark grow into Superman step-by-step make up for the the most interesting segments. When he makes the choice to become Superman, we feel the gravity of that choice. The film is called Man of Steel for that very reason.

Lois Lane is the trickiest part to cast out of all the characters. The career-driven overachieving qualities of Lois Lane, if not balanced correctly, can easily make her into a bitch. She should be a jerk, but a likable jerk. It’s in Superman’s overwhelming presence where her heartier side slowly surfaces.
 Amy Adams nails the career woman part of Lois from her first scene. The heartier side she plays out convincingly as well but unfortunately the romance is a bit rushed. I would have liked to see Lois’s vulnerable side melt away slower and have it unfold in a sequel.

Russell Crowe gives the film an engaging energetic kickstart as Jor-el; he puts an enthusiasm into this role he hasn’t in years. Michael Shannon brings a ferocious intensity to General Zod, who’s written as more complex and more relatable than Terrence Stamp’s version. I believe his motivation and anger. Laurence Fishburne is always a welcome presence and makes a fine Perry White, but what is up with that diamond earring? Is that suitable for work?

Kevin Costner is the heart of the movie as Jonathan Kent. He and Diane Lane make really convincing on-screen parents. Both are real-life parents and there’s something about how being a parent that physically changes the way carry yourself that’s hard to fabricate. That quality is captured effectively here and the values the Kents instill into Clark echoes throughout the film. Martha Kent’s first scene with a young Clark at school almost moved me to tears.

Hans Zimmer’s music punctuates the film’s goal by scoring a “Man of Steel” theme as opposed to a Superman theme. There’s no distinct attempt at trying to capture Superman’s presence with musical keys, the emphasis is the man himself. This separates it from John William’s class original score. The bombastic loud soaring god-like moments are operatic, and the quieter human moments show a lonely man moving from contemplation towards action.

Zack Snyder makes good directorial choices. Snyder’s held back with his trademark slow motion shots and thank goodness for that. The handheld cinematography effectively grounds the scenes, particularly the childhood scenes in Smallville evoke Terrence Malick films. The non-linear flashbacks is a great choice as it mixes things up for an origin story that we have seen before. It was more interesting we didn’t have to go through it linearly.

The finale is too long, partly it’s a reaction from all the complaints of no action from Superman Returns. People have been talking about the issue of too much destruction. It’s more that a lot of the destruction is caused by Superman himself. He seems unaware of his surroundings and is actively using the surrounding buildings to hurt his enemies. This would have been nullified if Cavill’s Superman just saved more civilians between the fights and if the aftermath of the destruction was addressed by the media. Christopher Reeve and Brandon Routh’s versions had no problem multi-tasking. The only one Superman power that wasn’t shown was the super breath, and there were many instances he could have used that power to put out a few fires. Maybe Superman hasn’t learned that power yet but he could have used his powers more creatively as well. On a tangential note, I loved the design of the heat vision. There was a destructive ‘last resort’ quality that looked scary and painful to fire out of your eyes.

Finally, some people might feel cheated by or downright reject these changes to the Superman mythos, but these changes properly inject the necessary weaknesses that can set this version of Superman on a journey with enough lessons to learn for subsequent films (assuming they’re making at least three of these including a Justice League movie). The new places they go with Superman were ultimately what thrilled me and the quiet human moments were what moved me. Personally I would have traded 10 minutes out of the finale for 10 more minutes in Smallville.

I look forward to where they take this version of Superman. Depending on which direction of the next film may affect how I feel about Man of Steel because there are a lot of things that are left unfinished that can be fixed in the sequel (i.e. the romance, the aftermath of the damage, Superman saving more people, how the world is reacting to his presence). It’s time to cast Lex Luthor!

Next Round of Reviews! Upcoming thoughts about Stephen Chow’s Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons

My next round of reviews:

Who takes 7 months to review a Batman movie? I do! It’s been a long struggle reviewing The Dark Knight Rises and Rust and Bone, realizing that the more you like something, the harder it is to articulate why it was personal to you. It was a repetitive cycle of opening up the post and geting lost in my own scrambled feelings that needed to be unknotted and structured for a reader. I encountered a similar problem with The Grandmaster review but thank goodness that only took me a week. My goal is to finish these two reviews by Chinese New Year.

Three titles that will likely be reviewed faster than the above two films.

Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons by Stephen Chow

As of right now, I haven’t seen the new Stephen Chow film yet. Even though my interest in the film is halved by the fact that Stephen Chow is not acting in it. It’s been pretty funny seeing the trailers playing in Hong Kong theaters, as it shows a lot of behind-the-scenes footage of Stephen Chow directing his actors. Which begs me to question, if they are flat out marketing the movie with footage of Stephen Chow acting out the scenes for his actors, what’s the point in seeing a Stephen Chow movie without Stephen Chow in it? I intend on finding the answer.

I have never been someone that feels my childhood is at stake when something I like is being rewritten upon, but it feels like that this time. Stephen Chow has given me some all-time highs throughout my childhood. It feels brutal. On one hand, its always fascinating to see how an artist evolves, for better or for worse. Maybe I have to accept its the end of an era. That there won’t be a Stephen Chow film with him acting in it ever again and I’m going to have to come to terms with that. Heck, I took it hard when I realized he probably wasn’t going to work with Ng Man Tat anymore.

So I’m both looking forward and dreading it at the same time.

Read my review here.

Next up!

Okay, I’m still trying to catch up on stuff that I’ve seen in the summer all the way to new current films.

  • The Dark Knight Rises by Christopher Nolan (a very long review and analysis of a trilogy)
  • Rust and Bone by Jacques Audiard
  • Argo by Ben Affleck
  • Jack Reacher by Christopher McQuarrie
  • Chinese Zodiac 12 by Jackie Chan
  • The Grandmaster by Wong Kar Wai

Martha Marcy May Marlene by Sean Durkin

Martha Marcy May Marlene by Sean Durkin

Before I review this movie, I have to talk about exposition in screenwriting. If you already know what exposition is, please skip ahead.

Exposition is the facts that you need to know to follow and understand a story. As film is a visual medium, the general rule in giving exposition is that you should always “show, don’t tell”.  i.e. You should never have a character say he is deadly killing machine, instead you show him taking out 10 people at the same time in a scene.  The best exposition is done as invisible as possible. The viewer should not be aware of it. At the worst of times, it disconnects the viewer because all of sudden they are shown the nuts and bolts of the story. It is simply not engaging or entertaining.

As a screenwriter, I wrestle with the idea of exposition. First of all, you have to get certain information across for the story to work. So you have to do it. Second of all, you have to make exposition interesting. What constitutes as interesting? Where is that line? My personal favorite example is in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery where they have a character named Basil Exposition whose sole purpose is to give exposition. So he’s giving you the exposition but because of the “wink wink” postmodern factor it is interesting again. So where is that line between interesting and uninteresting exposition? In Christopher Nolan’s Inception, often characters are explaining what’s going onto each other. Can we justify that it was interesting because Leonardo DiCaprio’s character was teaching Ellen Page’s (whose character is representing the audience) how the dream world works? Was there another way to show the audience what’s going on without the dialogue?

Martha Marcy May Marlene is a drama pasted on top of a horror movie skeleton. It is about a young woman named Martha (played by Elizabeth Olsen), who has just escaped an abusive cult in the Catskill mountains to stay with her older sister  Lucy (played by Sarah Paulson) and her husband Ted (played by Hugh Dancy). As she recovers, Martha deals with delusions and paranoia from her dark past.

Elizabeth Olson is an engaging actress and carries the film competently, she plays a naive innocence against massive trauma and we experience the inner turmoil she is hiding from everybody. What can I say? I like underplaying performances. John Hawkes is great as the leader of the cult. It’s a very subtle performance that is quite creepy. I have noticed him in several movies (Michael Mann’s Miami Vice where he played an informant) and even a Canadian short film where in the opening sequence he sets his arm on fire (I cannot remember the name of it). He’s a fine screen presence. I hate that there is not enough of just normal dudes on film. Hawkes will probably have to work his way up through playing disheveled creeps or crazy people to get a starring role like Michael Shannon in Take Shelter. I wish him all the best.

So how is it horrific? It is how Martha acts and what she says that suggests remnants of an odd warped view of the world (from the influence of being in the cult) that contrasts with societal norms represented by Lucy and Ted. Martha is taciturn about her past, she never directly tells Lucy what has happened (No exposition! Hurrah!). However the audience knows as we switch between the past and the present, the story shows pieces of what happened and leaves plenty of space for us to imagine the in-between. The horror forms out of everything between the cracks.

Non-linear storytelling is the trend this year with the likes of The Iron Lady, J. Edgar, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and We Need to Talk About KevinMartha Marcy May Marlene contains the best justification of the non-linear storytelling device this year so far.

It’s well-written, disciplined piece of drama that knows the subtlety of it’s own punches. And you know what? Basil Exposition is nowhere to be seen and I was rather marveled by that accomplishment.