Superman Begins (****)

There is nothing I love more at the movies than a pleasant surprise; especially when the surprise is wrapped in a “tentpole” studio picture that has every reason to play it safe. We longtime comics fans spent decades making do with shoddy, muddled, and sometimes downright stupid films based on the books we loved, and several of them starred Superman. Based on reviews I read and opinion pieces from comics people, I did not have high hopes for this one; but it won me over. Spoilers may follow, so be warned.

One of the reservations I had was that Man of Steel would, yet again, give us a look at Superman’s origin. But this time, there is no brief stoic scene of Jor-El watching his son leave orbit as the planet collapses around him. Instead we get some more insight into Krypton’s final days and are introduced to General Zod, who attempts a coup so that he can retrieve a codex of Kryptonian history – including genetic information – that would allow him to recreate the planet elsewhere. Krypton is clearly meant to represent our own future: its resources are exhausted and it has abandoned offworld colonies and attempts to terraform other worlds. Jor-El disagrees with Zod’s plan, choosing instead to embed the codex within the cells of his own son and send him in a rocket to another world.

The next time we see Kal he is grown up, quietly saving lives where he can, remembering his adopted father’s regular warnings to keep a low profile. Johnathan Kent feared, reasonably I think, that to do otherwise would lead to his son being dropped by a few mortar shells and dissected in Area 51. Again and again, Kal is tested by the central question of the film: when is it right for him to intervene? He saves his classmates when their school bus crashes into a river, and arguably this leads to his own exposure some years later; “what was I supposed to do, let everyone die?” pleads young Clark. “Maybe,” frowns Johnathan.

“Bullshit”, some fantard nearby heckled at that line. When you have an iconic character who has been around for 75 years, you are bound to have entitled fans trying to be the arbiter of what is and isn’t Superman. I rolled my eyes not long ago when I overheard a similar assertion that the new Star Trek films were all well and good, but they “weren’t Star Trek.” And in that fan’s world, I guess they aren’t. Science fiction fandom loves to know more than anyone else, and debate what is and isn’t “canonical”. This film has many canon-based complaints against it, and I won’t waste my breath debating them. I could give a shit, honestly, as long as a film does the best it can to tell its own story. Zack Snyder did a pretty good job of this with his adaptation of Watchmen, which, while not as engaging as Man of Steel, successfully addressed a clunky final act that some fans would hold sacrosanct. If you want to see what happens when slavish fanservice takes priority, look at the last Superman film.

Anyway, the point of Johnathan Kent’s “maybe” was not to be callous or tell Clark not to save people; it was partly concern for his son’s safety and partly a recognition that Clark simply cannot save everybody, even if he works tirelessly every minute of every day; and if he did, would that be a good thing for the human race? Johnathan Kent didn’t know; hence his answer. This is a question that has plagued Superman for decades in the comics, by the way; he has been depicted as compassionate, ridiculously powerful, sometimes remote, and so on depending on the fashion of the times and the requirements of the script. He has been a vessel for the hopes and dreams of dozens of writers; but in this case he is the unwitting target of a hostile invading alien force. Johnathan Kent was worried about what humanity would do to Clark if they caught him; he never anticipated that more Kryptonians could arrive, much less Zod.

But arrive they do, and they are not fucking around. Zod demands that Earth produce Kal-El, who has been hiding among them, within 24 hours or face destruction. On his way to Earth, he has picked up some of the Kryptonian outpost weapons, including a terraforming ship which he deploys over the Indian Ocean. Superman is tasked with disabling the machine while the American military attempt to disable (or at least distract) Zod. What follows is a battle that has been both widely criticized as “disaster porn” and admired for its audacity. I was definitely in the latter camp, because here’s the thing: as admirable as the human efforts were, there were largely in vain against Zod’s forces. As I saw Zod’s lieutenants fight Kal in Smallville, and Zod’s own weapon laying waste to Metropolis a block at a time, a realization that was completely unironic formed in my mind: “This is a job for Superman.”

Not Lex Luthor’s idiotic real estate schemes, not fighting the Japanese in the Second World War, not fucking around with Bizarro or The Toymaster, and perhaps, as Johnathan Kent mused, not saving every bus that goes over a bridge. This film is the only one so far that truly tests the measure of Superman’s power and his character; no other film has even come close to conveying what he is capable of. There are some who were upset by how Kal deals with Zod in the end; I had no problem with it whatsoever. He did what he did to save innocent lives, with a decision that was informed by the many ethical dilemmas presented earlier in the film and by Zod’s own warning that the only way he would be stopped is if Kal killed him. I’m sure the film’s detractors would argue that the situation could simply have been written differently, but that is not the point: Kal was presented with a situation that only he could deal with, and a decision that only he could make. He refused to endure the pain caused by inaction that Johnathan put him through again; he chose to do what Jor-El almost certainly would have done in his position. Who among us, in his position, would not?

I was very impressed with many elements of this film. The production design recalls the classic, Art Deco-influenced Fleischer Studios cartoons. The cast is filled with talented character actors in supporting roles, as in the Batman films. Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Russell Crowe, Michael Shannon, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, and Laurence Fishburne are all the best incarnations of their roles on film so far; some by a wide margin. The cinematography, effects, and music are all quite fine. For a long film, the pace is compelling without being rushed, and unlike all of the Nolan Batman films, it never feels like it is overlong or stalling. There are a few clunky moments here and there, but my only real complaint is with the penultimate scene, which feels tacked-on and is a weird shift in tone considering what just happened; it might have made more sense to have the same conversation between Kal and the general at a memorial service for the military personnel and civilians who perished because of Zod.

Unlike some, I do not have a lifelong love for Superman as a character. I often found him dull or irrelevant, and can think of only a few incarnations that I really enjoyed: the Fleischer cartoons, Alan Moore’s story “Whatever Happened To The Man of Tomorrow?”, Grant Morrison’s “All Star Superman”, and Mark Waid’s “Kingdom Come” and “Birthright”. Waid has expressed his displeasure with Man of Steel, to say the least, but comics are not films and vice versa. As a film, Man of Steel examines the character we call Superman and reinvents him with a glorious (albeit menacing) energy. I found it fascinating and am looking forward to what comes next.

Heroes Beacon

I’ve managed to rouse myself from my slack blogging long enough to entreat you, my internet friends, to help support the efforts of some Saint John pals in establishing a much-needed new comic shop in the heart of that city. The shop will be called Heroes Beacon and you can check out their plans here. As I write this they are about 2/3 funded with three weeks to go, so don’t wait for the last minute, get in there now and get one of those perks. I have already spoken for one and am thinking about going for another.

I have also drawn a poster artwork thing for them to use as they see fit, I think it makes a decent overview of what you can expect to find there once they get up and running. The important thing is to tell your friends and contribute, so share it up!

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The Influencing Machine

20130507-114902.jpgNPR host Brooke Gladstone presents an engaging history of journalism, discussing both how it has been a force for good and how it has been perverted (through politics and other means). I found myself getting a little bored with the history lessons but I was quite engaged by the ethical discussions and by Gladstone’s speculations about the future of reportage in a world where man and machine become increasingly intertwined.

The Influencing Machine works reasonably well as an instructional comic, with artist Josh Neufeld providing capable (albeit sometimes repetitive) illustration. I enjoyed the book overall, as a person who is interested in the news and media and has even done a little writing for newspapers but does not have the temperament for actual in-the-trenches reporting. I can also see it being useful for young people who are thinking about going into journalism and who want to get a feel for what the field is like.

Iron Man Three (**1/2)

Robert Downey Jr. returns as adorable bad boy Tony Stark in the third, presumably final solo film about Marvel Comics’ Iron Man. The first film kicked off the current run of (mostly) enjoyable Marvel movies, after some letdowns in the form of X3, Spider-Man 3, the Fantastic Four and so on. The first Iron Man film proved that with the right cast and script and attitude, the public will embrace a character they don’t necessarily know as well as, say, Superman. The second Iron Man film proved that Downey was not enough.

The third is not as fresh and invigorating as the first – how could it be, really? – but it is a definite improvement over the second. Nor is it anywhere near as exciting as the Avengers film, which it references regularly, so if you are one of the few people on the planet who missed it, you might want to check it out first.

Some minor spoilers may follow, so be warned:

I had mixed feelings about this film by the end. There are some very fun moments, especially during the action set pieces, and Downey is on his game throughout. I also enjoyed how the plot is, in a way, a poke in the eye to The Dark Knight Rises, with Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin seeming at first to be an analogue for Bane’s weirdly-accented terrorist. The true villain is Guy Pearce as the chief of AIM (who are, disappointingly, not wearing yellow hazmat suits); he has developed a bioweapon called Extremis that allows people to become undetectable living bombs, detonating themselves at key moments.

When one of the bombs hurts a friend, the American public is eager for Tony Stark to strike back at the terrorists, and he obliges by challenging the Mandarin on camera. The Mandarin replies by sending some of his people to destroy Tony’s Malibu home, leading to a long middle sequence of rebuilding and investigating.

It is that middle where the film loses its way a bit. Tony befriends a young boy outside of Nashville, shares some ham-handed insights on absent fathers and standing up for yourself, and learns to cope with the post-traumatic stress that has dogged him since The Avengers. Meanwhile, I was checking my watch, and I don’t wear a watch.

On the bright side, the finish of Iron Man Three (and I’m not being cute by spelling it out that way; that’s how it is spelled in the titles) is stronger than the finish of Iron Man 1 or 2, both of which were clunky and confused. The conceit of Tony being able to control his suits remotely, and depend on Jarvis for situational awareness and quick changes, is used to good effect. I enjoyed seeing a swarm of different suits designed for different jobs.

But, on a less bright side, when the credits rolled and turned into a kind of victory lap for the series, I realized that the ensuing montage of clips was more engaging and energetic than most of the previous two hours. So, while Iron Man Three is certainly not the letdown that other third instalments have been from Marvel, it is something of a limp to the finish.

Save The Date (***)

Lizzy Caplan and Alison Brie star as screwed-up sisters in this sort-of-romantic sort-of-comedy. After Sarah (Caplan) refuses an embarrassing public marriage proposal from her musician boyfriend Kevin (Geoffrey Arend), her rebound with incredibly nice guy Johnathan (Mark Webber) throws a wrench into the wedding plans being made by Beth (Brie) and Kevin’s bandmate and best friend Andrew (Martin Starr). Caplan is a cartoonist whose artwork is a dead ringer for that of Jeffrey Brown, who has a writing credit on the film that he shares with the screenwriter and director, Michael Mohan.

For a first feature, Mohan and his cast do a good job of creating a film about relationships that could have slipped into a maudlin twentysomethings-with-problems formula. Caplan and Webber are particularly solid as a couple of people with wounds from past relationships that are trying to figure out how to be together. As much as I love Alison Brie, she sometimes seemed inconsistent as Beth compared to her more famous roles. Martin Starr is a solid supporting player as always. The script is smart, with the exception of the very end, which is a bit of a confusing cop-out.

I found myself a bit distracted by the world the characters live in, which is like a west coast version of Friends; despite the occasional complaints about having lousy jobs, everyone seems to be pretty comfortable, lives in a nice apartment, can afford to dress well and eat out and so on. Even Kevin and Andrew’s goofy band and Sarah’s comics can draw large crowds at shows. All of which is fine to an extent, but if a film is going to depict serious relationship issues as this one does, it should avoid half-hearted subplots like the separation of the sisters’ parents and perhaps work harder to couch the leads in a universe that aligns with the potential outcomes of the plot.

Evil Dead [2013] **

Mia (Jane Levy, Suburgatory) is a troubled teen who wants to kick her narcotics habit, but she has failed before and her friends fear that she will again. They enlist the help of her brother David (Shiloh Fernandez), who has been absent for a while but is determined to help his sister, even if it means locking her in a creepy old cabin belonging to their family somewhere in the Michigan woods.

Unfortunately for Mia, the cabin has become the site of some dark ritual, unleashing a demon that wants to consume innocent souls when it isn’t cutting or torturing bodies. It possesses her first, walking her into their midst to say “you’re all going to die tonight.” Spoilers follow, so read at your own risk.

This version of Evil Dead is of course a remake of the low-budget classic by Sam Raimi, starring Bruce Campbell, both of whom are executive producers on this version written and directed by newcomer Fede Alvarez. For a first feature, Alvarez does a good job under difficult circumstances, remaking a cult favourite that influenced a generation of filmmakers. In this respect he is far more successful than the directors of the remakes of films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, Prom Night, Last House on the Left, Halloween… you name it.

The usual pattern for these remakes is to dress up the spare, low-budget original with more viscera, updated visual effects, and CW stars hoping to jump-start a film career. They fail, ultimately, because even a faithful adaptation has nothing new to offer either the jaded horror veteran or the novice; the movies just kind of lay there, trading on the fame of their predecessors but restricted by the same. Alvarez is sure to include all the little touches that the die-hards would expect, from Raimi’s old Plymouth to a tree rape to a scene with a chainsaw. I only minded these moments when it seemed like he was going through contortions to do so, which mostly happens in the finale. It is a gory film to be sure, but not gratuitously so, and perhaps not even as much as the original.

Unfortunately, it also just kind of lays there, and part of the reason for it this time is the lack of one element that was always going to be difficult to replace: Bruce Campbell as Ash. Campbell’s charisma, one-liners, and Three Stooges shtick made the original films as goofy as they were scary. That is what made those films work. Without that not so secret ingredient, this new attempt is not much different from any other dead-teenager movie; certainly no more enjoyable than, say, the remake of My Bloody Valentine.

There are fresh horror films out there, to be sure. Fans of the original Evil Dead films would almost certainly love both Cabin Fever films, as well other films by directors like Eli Roth or Ti West. Unfortunately, for all of its careful surface tribute, this update is just another addition to the pile of conservative corporate horror films, while the original was a groundbreaking poke in the eye of the Hollywood system. It has little energy, less joy, and no soul.

Stoker (***)

Mia Wasikowska (Jane Eyre) stars as India, a girl who loses her beloved father (Dermot Mulroney) in a car accident on her 18th birthday. Her mother (Nicole Kidman) is comforted by the sudden arrival of uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), who has never visited before. Charlie is charistmatic and a little creepy, much like India herself. Both of them are able to hear sounds from much further away than other people, and see things from very far away as well.

The exact nature of India and Charlie’s apparent superhumanity is not really the point of the film; it is an eerie coming of age story masterfully told by director Chan-Wook Park (Oldboy) and screenwriter Wentworth Miller (Prison Break). We are constantly shown small moments of discovery which are revisited from a slightly (usually more sinister) angle later in the film, from the seemingly innocuous tradition of India’s new shoes for her birthday to the truth about uncle Charlie’s travels in Europe.

Stoker is a splendid, sumptuous, sometimes perverse film; it is the anti-Twilight. Catch it in theatres if you get a chance.