Monday, 24 June 2013

'Man of Steel', 'The Great Gatsby' and 'Much Ado About Nothing': review round-up

'Man of Steel' - Dir. Zack Snyder (12A)

I feel like a full-on review of 'Man of Steel' would be pretty redundant at this point, as everything I had to say about what's wrong with it has been said better elsewhere. I'm talking about blog entries by comic book writers like Mark Waid (author of fantastic Superman origin story 'Birthright') and articles from critics like (massive DC comics nerd) Chris Sims of Comics Alliance, who spoke eloquently - and at length - about why it's a bad adaptation of its source material. I wrote a little piece on here about the film's gender politics, though mainly because that was one of the few problems I had with it that I hadn't really seen expressed elsewhere. But between that piece and those other reviews, you pretty much have my feelings on Zack Snyder's cynical, dour and needlessly grimy take on the Superman mythos.

SPOILERS, but it's hard to come away from 'Man of Steel' feeling that anything heroic has taken place given that, in the words of comic writer Brian Bendis: "you basically had Superman save the world but not without causing a worse than 9/11 disaster, make out with his girlfriend in the middle of it, and then murder the bad guy in front of children". When civilians emerge from the rubble and say "he saved us", it's hard to take that seriously given the entire city (and untold millions of lives) seem to have been lost in the meantime. This is not a film in which Superman (Henry Cavill) goes out of his way to save people's lives - at least outside of scenes where that is the express purpose (such as the oil rig and school bus bits near the start). And the aforementioned make-out with Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is even worse when you consider Superman has super hearing: surely he's kissing her whilst hearing the screams and tears of those trapped in the rubble?

For those that think I'm over-thinking that bit or (heaven forbid!) "taking it too seriously", I remind you that Snyder's film - created with 'The Dark Knight' duo David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan - takes itself incredibly seriously, expending a lot of effort and energy creating a joyless, colourless vision of the hero and his world. A film in which young Clark Kent is bullied by stock movie jerks, when all he wants to do is quietly read Plato. And for a film that takes itself so seriously, it's really odd when it runs headlong into the cheesiest movie cliches - never more so than when Kevin Costner's Jonathan Kent (the film's one genuine triumph) dies trying to save the family dog from an incoming tornado.

Aside from the greatness that was the casting of Kevin Costner as a kindly, middle-American patriarch, Henry Cavill makes for a compelling Superman (speaking with authority but never arrogance) and you're never going to get better than Michael Shannon as an intense, shouty, slightly insane bad guy - but all of the above are wasted by the dreadful movie that surrounds them. It's got more in common with Michael Bay's 'Transformers' than Nolan's Batman: over-loud, tone-deaf, disaster porn and destruction occurring without conscience or consequence. In last years' 'Avengers', we similarly see an American metropolis beset by alien invasion and, whilst the city takes a bit of damage (though nothing on the scale here: it isn't reduced to a crater), there is also emphasis on the heroes saving people's lives and trying to limit that damage. The spectacle in that film comes from all the awesome things the good guys do as they save the day. By contrast, 'Man of Steel' puts emphasis on buildings being punched over as spectacle in and of itself, and Superman rarely comes out of this seeming heroic.

It being a bad movie in its own rite is bad enough, but 'Man of Steel' also makes it extremely difficult to see how DC/Warner Brothers can spin this out into an entire DC cinematic universe of movies, culminating in a Justice League team-up (featuring Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman et al). We've seen seen gritty Superman, and we know gritty Batman can work - and even gritty Green Arrow is currently doing the rounds on TV - but do we really now have to suffer through gritty Flash, gritty Aquaman, gritty Marsian Manhunter, gritty Shazam and gritty Wonder Woman? In the Marvel movies, which thrive on silver age, costumed spectacle and a sense of unabashed fun, it wouldn't be too strange for any character to turn up in all their weird and wonderful glory - a point born out by the in-production 'Guardians of the Galaxy': which features among its heroes a wise-ass, gun-toting Raccoon and an anthropomorphic tree. But with DC's movies to date, it's difficult to understand how this can work - and 'Man of Steel' poses more questions than answers in this regard.

It's also really difficult to see where the Superman franchise itself can go from here: a city got destroyed in this one, during a full-on invasion by dozens of soldiers with, basically, the same powers as Superman. That sounds like the final film in a trilogy, or the perfect scenario for that Justice League movie (with enough stuff going on to keep every hero occupied and necessary), but how can they top it with the next one in this series in terms of pure CGI-fueled spectacle? I'll say this for it: I'm intrigued to find out the answer, though I won't be surprised if the answer is even more explosions and an even higher body-count. Isn't the prevailing wisdom that sequels have to go bigger?

'The Great Gatsby' - Dir. Baz Luhrmann (12A)

This one's been out for ages, but I only found time to see it last week so I'll give my two-penneth a little late.

I haven't read Fitzgerald's celebrated novel - supposedly the masterpiece of American literature - so I can't speak with any authority on whether or not Baz Luhrmann's movie gets it right. But, for my taste, it's a vapid, tacky mess of a film, populated by underdeveloped, yet strangely hateful characters (is there anyone more simpering and with less agency than Tobey Maguire's Nick Carraway and Carey Mulligan's Daisy Buchanan?). A sickening, barely tolerable mix of hyper-active editing, overbearing music and a general busy-ness of aesthetic that drowns out all the details and is the enemy of subtlety. In some ways it feels like a Broadway musical stripped of its songs, and maybe a musical version would have been more watchable, but instead - with the exception of one character-driven scene: a climactic confrontation between Leonardo DiCaprio's Gatsby and Joel Edgerton's Tom - it's a total car crash.

It could be that these problems come straight out of the novel, but there are so many gaps in logic and reason that make this film infuriating. For instance, why is it claimed that nobody has ever seen Gatsby before, when he's constantly shown making the cover of national newspapers? Why are we told he NEVER comes to his lavish, celebrity-filled parties only moments before he makes an appearance at one such event? Why is Nick so instantly enamoured with Gatsby? What is it that Gatsby finds so appealing about the insipid Daisy? Why is it that Daisy and Tom's daughter - mentioned once in passing - doesn't feature at all? Why is it that Nick - the only character with a normal job - seemingly never has to go to work? Why is Jason Clarke's character totally fine with Tom seeing his wife (Isler Fisher) on the side? And why is he immediately enraptured by premeditated, homicidal rage towards a complete stranger when she's killed by accident? I imagine answers to these questions lie in the novel, but they certainly weren't apparent in the film. Which wouldn't really matter if the film was at least a little bit entertaining and not a flagrant abuse of your eyeballs.

And on the Jay-Z soundtrack - which litters the film with anachronistic modern R&B tracks from Beyonce and the like: I'm not inherently against that, even if I think the reasoning (let's show the kids that the excesses of the 1920s were similar to hip-hop culture today!) is spurious and superficial. But where that approach does become a problem is that it has the ultimate, unintended effect of giving the film a very short shelf-life: this is very much 2013's vision of 1925, and it's hard to see how that will have any value - or find much lasting favour - as we get further from the film's initial release.

'Much Ado About Nothing' - Dir. Joss Whedon (12A)

"Time goes on crutches till love have all his rites". Just one of many succinct and perfect lines in Shakespeare's play that really sing coming from the assembled cast of Joss Whedon regulars in this paired down adaptation of the bard. Directed by the 'Buffy' creator, with characteristic wit and lightness of touch, the film sees regular collaborators Amy Acker/Alexis Denisof/Tom Lenk (Buffy/Angel), Nathan Fillion/Sean Maher (Serenity), Clark Gregg/Ashley Johnson (Avengers), Reed Diamond/Fran Kranz (Dollhouse) in front of the camera, whilst brother and sometime writing partner Jed Whedon (Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along-Blog) contributes the soundtrack: it's a Whedonverse reunion - all shot on location at the director's Californian house, during downtime from production of 'The Avengers'.

If the idea of a group of wealthy, LA pals, shooting a black and white Shakespeare film whilst on holiday sounds like a recipe for a slightly self-indulgent and incestuous love-in, then it is at least one that works. Not only is 'Much Ado' a really heartfelt and sincere version of the play, featuring stunning performances from Acker and Kranz in particular, it's also riotously entertaining and laugh-out-loud funny in a way most probably won't associate with 17th century iambic pentameter. Without deviating substantially from the original play, Whedon has created something that feels fresh and modern and, in part due to the naturalistic delivery of his cast, is very easy understand for a contemporary audience - giving the old English verse a new lease of life.

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