Man of Steel: Movie review

Man of Steel posterHere is an epic poem I wrote about Man of Steel‘s leading man Henry Cavill:

O, Henry, you are so handsome…

That’s as much as I have so far but I imagine the rest will be 15,000 words or so devoted to his face/thighs/pecs/etc etc, so keep an eye out for it.

The last Superman movie was 2006’s Superman Returns, which… is not so bad, actually, even though pop culture seems to remember it as a total dud. Its problem, probably, is that it feels like it’s from another, older era of smaller, quieter, more thoughtful blockbusters – not so surprising, since its director Bryan Singer made it as a sort of half-sequel to 1980’s Superman II. Too bad for Singer that that’s not enough for us modern audiences, who demand awe-inspiring epic scale in our blockbusters.

Man of Steel delivers epic scale.

This is a big movie, right from the space opera opening scenes that depict the collapse of Superman’s home planet Krypton. From exploding planets it’s not much of a leap to exploding towns and then whole exploding cities. Man of Steel weaves in emotion-heavy flashbacks to Clark Kent’s youth – some of them surprisingly touching – but it’s never long till someone is getting punched through a building or firing machine guns at invincible bad guys or disappearing into a ball of fire.

It’s pretty awesome.

But the movie is so big it actually gets in its own way, like Supes tripping on his cape. It raises big questions – what happens to world politics if a guy like Superman actually exists? Is “Christopher Nolan realism” a thing that even works for a character like Superman? What happens when an alien species makes first contact? Are god-like powers as much a burden as they are a blessing? – but the answers are obscured by all those huge explosions and collapsing buildings. There’s the occasional sense of wishing you could look around them (or just use your X-ray vision to see through them), to the smarter and more complex movie you glimpse behind.

This is most obvious in the spectacular, problematic final third. (Some slight spoilers follow.) From a storytelling perspective, it’s a terrific climax. On the other hand, huge swathes of Metropolis are reduced to rubble in Superman’s showdown with General Zod. The scale of that destruction is… worrying. Watching it arouses actual anxiety. You can’t see skyscrapers topple onto fleeing citizens who disappear into billowing clouds of debris and not think of September 11. And then… the battle is over. Supes smiles again. The Daily Planet‘s employees are back at work. The aftermath of levelling half of a Manhattan stand-in is never explored. The ending is huge, but it’s empty, and in the end it sort of adds up to… nothing.

This is troubling, and it’s a shame, and I think it keeps Man of Steel from achieving that this-is-all-very-important sensibility of the recent Batman trilogy (whose director Christopher Nolan was a producer on this movie). Batman Begins and its sequels didn’t make their impact on pop culture just because they were gritty*, they made them because they asked big questions then went some way to answering them, even if the answers were confusing and complicated if you thought about them too hard. Man of Steel is big and entertaining and stunning, but not smart**. But – shrug. I still liked it a lot. Maybe there’s the sequels for that kind of stuff.

(*In its favour, Man of Steel doesn’t force grit on the Man of Steel just for the sake of making him gritty. He isn’t given, like, a drinking problem or some other dumb flaw. He’s a straight-up, through-and-through good guy – which I guess you can argue makes for a pretty boring character, though I don’t think he is here. Steel plays the silliest bits of Superman lore – the cape, the enemy named “Zod”, the glasses-are-a-foolproof-disguise  – mostly straight, which works for this movie’s tone, though I did kinda like how Singer had a bit of fun with them in Superman Returns.)

(**Maybe this is a Zack Snyder thing. His direction of Man of Steel follows the strong-on-visuals light-on-actual-substance pattern in his other movies, and I say that as one of the apparently few people who liked his adaptation of Watchmen.)

Man of Steel

Henry Cavill is a good Superman, and not (only) because of the aforementioned super-handsomeness – he fits that all-American* corn-fed boy-next-door superhero thing, embodying more literal and metaphorical muscle than Brandon Routh’s more introspective (and sometimes kind of drippy) take. Amy Adams – who I like a lot, but had my doubts about when I learned she’d been cast – is an unexpectedly good, feisty Lois Lane. Russell Crowe is a lot (like a lot) better suited to the paternal gruffness of Clark’s Kryptonian dad Jor-El than he was to the walrus-ish singing of Les Mis, and Kevin Costner has a nice gravitas as Clark’s adopted dad Jonathan. As Zod, Michael is an early frontrunner to win next year’s Oscar for Best Crazy Eyes.

(*Which is especially strange given that Cavill is English. And so was Batman‘s Christian Bale. Someone could write a whole thesis on the implications of Englishmen starring as quintessentially American heroes, probably.)

Look, Man of Steel is no Batman Begins – I left that movie with a profoundly new perspective on the Caped Crusader, whereas Steel didn’t give me any impression of Superman I didn’t already kind of have. Still, it’s a way better reboot than something like last year’s Amazing Spider-Man, which was really merely a remake. I’m not really that interested in where big-screen Spidey goes next, but I am interested in what Superman will be taken when his sequel drops in a year or two.

 

A Short History of the World, Geoffrey Blainey: Book review

A Short History of the World, Geoffrey BlaineyI don’t really have a lot of time for anyone who rabbits on about traditional values, partly because it’s usually a stand-in phrase that’s code for “I am a giant bigot”, but mostly because you only have to read a book like A Short History of the World to know that “traditional” means… basically nothing. Human society was radically different a hundred years ago, it was tremendously radically different a thousand years ago, it was staggeringly tremendously radically different five thousand years ago and beyond. What are the “traditional” parts, and how do you sieve them from the parts we’re glad we’ve left behind?

Here’s what always surprises me about human history (I found it hard to wrap my head around this when I read Guns, Germs and Steel too): Modern humans have more or less been around for – what, 200,000 years? And civilisation has been around for… oh, 10,ooo years? Which leaves a gap of about 190,000 years. (The surprising bit is coming up next.) So what were we doing all that time?! Civilisation as a concept is not only new, it’s hard, and you know it’s hard because it took us such a long time to come up with it – and yet, today, we take it completely for granted. It seems obvious as anything.

Geoffrey Blainey’s book paints human history in super-broad strokes – it has to, or it’d be so long it’d take as long to read as it took the events it charts to happen – but it’s full of those moments where you realise that, oh yeah, we invented everything about our society. Society didn’t just happen by itself. And Blainey doesn’t just marvel at creation of the big stuff – the writing and the religion and the democracy and all that. He kneels down to inspect the little fascinating details too: One of the most striking bits is a simple paragraph about how drably coloured much of the ancient world must have been, because we didn’t have the means to produce dyes. That’s kind of something. Don’t take history for granted, kids.

You can’t help but feel a kind of narcissism on the species level reading a book like this: For all the frightening, violent, selfish things we’ve done, us human beings are fucking remarkable. Our achievements are fucking incredible. Not so long ago we were all hunter-gatherers. Even more recently almost all of us had to spend almost all our lives toiling to feed and shelter and clothe ourselves. Now we tinker around in these hugely complicated, densly stratified societies. We’re pretty great! You get the feeling that – assuming we don’t wipe ourselves out within the next century, which, honestly, doesn’t seem that unlikely – there’s more great leaps forward coming for our civilisation. And after they’ve happened we’ll carry on taking them completely for granted because they seem obvious as anything.

 

 

 

Monsters University: Movie review

Monsters University posterSigh of relief, everyone: Monsters University is pretty terrific.

This was not a sure thing. Pixar can do good sequel: Toy Story 2 is one of the best sequels ever. And Toy Story 3 is even better than that. On the other hand: Cars 2.

Monsters University does not, luckily, reek of a sequel churned out to sell toys. It’s a worthy successor to Monsters, Inc. (which for a long time was probably my favourite Pixar film. Or at least up there at the top of the list. It’s almost impossible to choose just one favourite Pixar film). It’s entertaining. It’s smart. It’s funny – sometimes very funny.

A+ grade to whoever decided to make the sequel to Monsters, Inc. a prequel, because there’s really nowhere to go from Inc.‘s lovely final shot. University takes us back to Mike Wazowski’s (voiced by Billy Crystal – who didn’t annoy me even once, which says a lot about how good this film is) and Sulley’s (John Goodman) college days. The former is booksmart but lacks natural talent as a scarer; the latter is the exact opposite. They clash. They start to grudgingly respect one another’s talents. Eventually, they become best friends. Their relationship flows perfectly into – and from – Monsters, Inc.

Monsters University

This is unashamedly a “college movie”. The plot riffs on every Greek system cliche, packing in everything outsiders think of when we picture American colleges: parties, studies, fraternities, sororities, beautiful Ivy League-style campuses, no anxieties about how all this is being paid for. There’s a point near the end when it seems Monsters U will have a standard (and disappointing) college movie ending – the nerd underdogs triumphing over the frat boys. A surprise third act rescues the climax, moves it into unexpected, more interesting territory.

(Slight spoilers: It’s interesting that, though the film appears initially to fawn over the idea of college/university education, it turns out Mike and Sulley are college dropouts. Their success is because of their own hard work and skill at spotting opportunities, not because they have degrees. I don’t remember if that was addressed in the first movie or not, but there’s a nice parallel with the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world.)

See Monsters University on the big screen. It’s stunning. The things they’re doing with computer-generated animation these days are incredible. Every monster is a lush, furry, unique beast, bursting with energy and flexibility. They look like big walking Muppets. Preceding the feature is the short film The Blue Umbrella, whose charm is almost overwhelmed by its dazzle. Its rain-slicked city setting looks like a photograph brought to life.

Monsters University gives me faith that Pixar’s next sequel Finding Dory will be good. But… not as good as its predecessor. Pixar’s films have long been revered because they’re fresh, they’re inventive, they’re awesome – in the literal sense of that word. Very little about Monsters U feels awe-inspiring. Pixar has its formula – a very good formula – but doesn’t deviate from it. (This is why Cars has always bored me, I think – its story hits exactly the beats you expect it to hit, and nothing more.) University is enjoyable, polished, but it’s lacking the darker, rich adult subtext Pixar built its reputation on. Maybe that era is behind them now.

 

The Bling Ring: Movie review

The Bling Ring posterYou’d write off The Bling Ring off as far-fetched B.S. if it wasn’t based on a true story. It’s a faithful adaptation – kind of worryingly faithful – of The Suspect Wore Louboutins, Nancy Jo Sales’ Vanity Fair feature that inspired it. The events the film depicts did happen, in actual real life: A team of high-school-age young women (and one young man) really did break in to Hollywood stars’ houses and steal millions of dollars worth of stuff. Paris Hilton really is dumb enough to leave her house keys under her doormat. And there really are people who do crazy things to copy celebrity lifestyles. You don’t even need to go to L.A. to find them.

Like the celebrity obsession it’s focused on, Bling Ring is scandalously enjoyable even though you know you should probably pretend you’re above it. It’s too tawdry, too proudly vapid not to like. When smiling sociopath ringleader Rebecca (Katie Chang) convinces her friend Marc (Israel Broussard) to break in to celebrities’ houses, it really does seem like a fun, comically easy thing to do – and not even all that criminal. We already feel entitled to know everything about famous people’s lives. The burglar bunch just takes that to the next logical step: They feel entitled to enter celebrities’ houses, lounge around on their furniture, pinch their things.

Which makes these characters – Rebecca and Marc are joined on their stealing spree by friends Nicki (Emma Watson), Nicki’s adopted sister Sam (Taissa Farmiga), and beachy idiot Chloe (Clair Julien) – assholes. They’re unquestionably assholes. Stealing is an asshole move. But their too-privileged victims, especially Hilton, have such vast quantities of stuff they can’t possibly miss all of it*. No wonder the bling ring doesn’t seem to think they’re doing anything immoral. Ultimately, you wonder if they are.

(*Hilton apparently didn’t notice anything had been stolen until hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of jewellery was taken from her. She allowed Coppola to shoot in her house and appears briefly in the movie, so apparently she’s not so dumb she doesn’t get the joke.)

Director Sophia Coppola seems ambivalent about it too. Bling Ring only has a plastic-picnic-knife-edge of satire. Coppola isn’t celebrating these thefts, but she’s not savagely condemning them, either. She’s detached from her characters*, occasionally sympathetic to them – a scene at the end has Marc marched into prison, wearing bright orange overalls and surrounded by hard-looking criminals, and it feels unfair. Yet it’s spliced with Rebecca excitedly asking police whether stealing from Lindsay Lohan has made LiLo notice her, and Nicki twisting her arrest and trial into some positive, The Secret-style affirmation of her actions. Assholes.

(*Bling Ring has that arm’s length, dreamy style of many of Coppola’s previous films. It’s best put to use in the wide-shot, single-take, beautiful and haunting scene where Rebecca and Marc break into Audrina Patridge’s house.)

The Bling Ring Emma Watson

Caveat: I think Watson is smart and talented and sooooo pretty, so I’m biased. But she steals (no pun intended, I swear) this movie. Her imitation of a sharply vacuous SoCal teen is perfect – whether it’s what actual SoCal teens are like is irrelevant, because Watson sounds how everyone outside that world believes they’re like. Her character is beautiful but graceless, and all the more repulsively compelling once you discover the privileged, zero-self-awareness things Nicki says are mostly direct quotes from the real-life socialite she’s based on.

(Interestingly, that real-life socialite, Alexis Neiers, was the subject of an E! reality show which wound up documenting her trial. It’s probably a good thing Bling Ring omitted that: The meta-ness of putting a character inside that reality TV, manufactured fame bubble of The Hills would have twisted the film back around on itself too far.)

I won’t be shocked if The Bling Ring inspires a rash of copycat thefts from viewers who see the glamour but miss the point. Hopefully Hollywood celebrities have learned to lock their damn doors now.