Archive for December, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

Starring- Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, William Kircher, James Nesbitt, Stephen Hunter, Dean O’Gorman, Aidan Turner, John Callen, Peter Hambleton, Jed Brophy, Mark Hadlow, Adam Brown, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Cate Blanchett, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mikael Persbrandt, Sylvester McCoy, Luke Evans, Stephen Fry

Director- Peter Jackson

PG-13- extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OPVWy1tFXuc

I own DVD copies of the Star Wars prequels and actually watch them sometimes, so I kind of figured we were never going to locate the outer limits of my goodwill toward my most beloved franchises.

Well, we’ve found it.

In The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and a whole mess of dwarves continue pressing their way toward the Lonely Mountain to reclaim their old home — and treasure trove — from the dragon Smaug (voice of Benedict Cumberbatch). This was also the plot of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, and it will also be the plot of The Hobbit: There and Back Again, but fear not — different, unrelated stuff happens in the middle! In fact, stuff happens repeatedly, one thing on top of another, until a bit of stuff is arbitrarily chosen as an ending, so that we can have a third film in which more stuff occurs! After all, an adventure isn’t worth going on if it doesn’t last at least seven hours, right?

So, in case you can’t tell, I’m not fond of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. I’m not the sort of person who ever really takes a bad movie personally; in a strange way, I actually like bad movies, in the sense that I see it all as a part of the moviegoing experience and find everything instructive in one way or another. This is about as close as I get, though. I’m certain I’ve mentioned this before, but on the off chance I haven’t, The Lord of the Rings trilogy pretty consistently lands near my Top 10 when I’m talking my favorite movies of all time. And handily, they’re my all-time favorite fantasy films. And of course, the books are wonderful, and that includes The Hobbit, which I just finished re-reading a few weeks ago in preparation for this, an idea it turns out was a bad one.

It’s not really the fact that I think The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a bad movie that has me reeling. I’ve seen bad movies — and bad adaptations — with good intentions and certain redeemable qualities. Those, I think, deserve some measure of respect, and I try to offer it. No, what has me frustrated here is that The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug proves true what I’ve feared ever since the announcement that this adaptation would be split into three parts — that decision was motivated by pure profit. This is not about adapting a classic and beloved work of literature. This is about profiting off its name for as long as possible.

I still kind of stand by The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. It’s true that I’ve soured on it significantly since that first viewing — a fact that doesn’t show in my review, since I don’t intend any of these to be living documents. It has its problems, but with that film, one could believe that they resulted not from disrespect for the source material but from the fact that Peter Jackson perhaps loved it too much and was therefore not only adapting literally everything that happens in it but also everything that’s implied to happen and everything from Tolkien’s notes that could be shoehorned in there. A lot of what was, to my knowledge, invented — orcs with a vendetta chasing after Thorin (Richard Armitage) — could be taken as an attempt to streamline the film into something resembling a standalone, self-contained work.

Here? Ninety-five percent of this movie is nonsense it completely makes up out of thin air. And very, very little of it is fun or interesting nonsense. Half of it is completely redundant and boring, speculating about things that no one ever cared to speculate about. For instance, the opening scene — yes, it is inevitable that at some point prior to this quest, Gandalf (Ian McKellan) sat down with Thorin and said, “I’d like to help you with your quest.” This is the kind of thing the audience can learn from the fact that Gandalf’s, you know, helping with the quest. So, if you’re going to fill in this gap, I would want to learn something about the characters or story that I didn’t already know. Did I? Not particularly.

Of course, a lot has been said about the fact that The Hobbit now has a love triangle. And I’m going to say more, because seriously, that was a terrible idea. At the end of the day, the central problem is that, inevitably, it has nothing to do with the larger plot or themes and therefore only serves to provoke questions about what it’s doing here. It’s here to do two things: pad out the runtime, so there’s a third movie, and provide an excuse for Legolas (Orlando Bloom) to put in an appearance. And Legolas is in the movie because, hey, he was in the original trilogy, and seeing things that you recognize from other things is the same as having fun at the movies. The rest of it involves a completely invented character, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), whose affections are reserved for Kili (Aidan Turner), one of the dwarves. I’m not going to pretend that doesn’t at least touch fan-fiction territory. And that whole thing spirals the climax off into two prongs, one of which didn’t exist at all in the book and, again, has nothing to do with the parts of the story anyone actually cares about. It also splits the party of dwarves for no real reason.

The truly baffling thing about all of this is that they’re trying desperately and completely transparently to pad out this run-time by making up new story elements and working them haphazardly into the structure of the novel, to the extent that an actual majority of the movie consists of new material, but the events that actually are in the book just get tossed out there as quickly as possible and then shoved aside.

Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt) was at least a full chapter in the book, and one of my favorite characters as well. Here, he gets a three-minute scene with a little bit of dialogue and then disappears. That’s all the more we see of his house and land either. Newcomers to the story are going to wonder why they even included this scene. The only thing it really establishes is that the characters must go through Mirkwood to complete their journey, which is something the writers could easily have had Gandalf do.

Speaking of Mirkwood, the movie gets that out of its system as quickly as possible, too. And that’s a shame; Mirkwood was one of the things I was most looking forward to seeing on the big screen. In the book, it’s a dark mystery, one that implies violence and terror without ever showing you much. It’s a darkness that settles down on the characters’ souls and, eventually, yours as well. And then came the spiders, and all that you feared was proved true.

Here, they enter the forest and are fighting spiders about five minutes later. Even that scene is quicker than in the book and doesn’t give Bilbo much to do. It doesn’t play on the book’s message, either — in Tolkien’s story, temptation leads the dwarves off the path that they were explicitly instructed not to leave. In the movie, the path is hard to see, and the dwarves just plain stumble off it without realizing they’ve done so.

And after the movie quickly hashes these scenes out, suddenly, we’re in the kingdom of the elves, and we’re spending an obnoxious amount of time on this completely invented love triangle. Then, the movie gets to Laketown and stays there for, like, two hours for some reason.

But even when we’re getting scenes that were in the book, the movie is almost blind to what they’re actually supposed to signify. It reduces them to pieces of an episodic adventure that unfold for no real reason and exist only as fun action bits. The book has the quality of an episodic adventure to some extent, but there’s a specific way that everything that happens develops Bilbo, turning him from an average hobbit into a hero. Here, he gets lost in his own story, drowned out by elves whose role is expanded considerably but not useful in any way, men whose stories might go somewhere, not that we’ll really know until the third installment, and interchangeable dwarves who, to be fair, were interchangeable in the book but only because the actual story is about Bilbo.

Part of the reason the first installment of The Hobbit is watchable is that it actually does capture a lot of Bilbo’s arc — many of his most substantial personal changes happen in the first third of the book anyway. It might not hit all of the most perfect notes, but there’s still something there to latch onto emotionally.

With The Desolation of Smaug, this character is no longer really growing or changing; he’s just another action figure being dragged through fire and steel.

The movie’s also lost a sense that the quest, for Gandalf, is more about Bilbo than the dwarves. Everything he does here is full of ominous portent, as the movie develops yet another subplot around him that excessively prequelizes this story, to the extent that it’s a wonder anyone’s surprised at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring when Sauron goes on the move.

Perhaps a lot of this is the result of the fact that, rather transparently, these movies are no longer interested in telling the story in the way that they were back when it was The Lord of the Rings. These movies seemingly have no idea that there are types of on-screen drama that are not “people fighting.” The Desolation of Smaug scarcely has quiet moments. It’s running and gunning from the moment it begins — another reason to dislike the streamlining of Beorn’s scene, as it was a welcome respite of warmth and comfort that the book used well and that the movie desperately needs. There are orcs nearly everywhere in this adaptation — near Beorn’s house, in Mirkwood, in Laketown. The barrel scene — which, because of the way it’s adapted, actually makes the characters’ use of the barrels confusing — is now a running fight with the dwarves striking from the river while orcs leap and fly and shoot arrows and elves charge in to join the fight. The unnecessary two-pronged climax brings that fight into Laketown as well. Even when it’s not the orcs, there’s no longer much of any feeling to it — the scene with the spiders, which was, in the book, creepy in that broad, childish sort of way, is here a frenetic bit of adventuring that rapidly drains itself of all tension. And what comes after Bilbo’s encounter with Smaug is perhaps not unexpected but is nevertheless completely ridiculous and over-the-top.

The action in this installment is beyond testing the audience’s suspension of disbelief. The battle scenes in The Lord of the Rings, despite involving elves and dwarves and orcs, were grounded affairs, and that fit the tone of those movies. Sure, there were temporary missteps, nearly all of them, in retrospect, involving Legolas — the shield-surfing scene, that dumb thing with the elephants — but those are short scenes in the middle of long movies. That type of thing constitutes nearly the entirety of The Desolation of Smaug’s action sequences. The barrel scene is a profoundly stupid affair, with Legolas jumping from dwarf head to dwarf head as they float down the river. He’s firing arrows at orcs that are attacking from overhanging trees and riverbanks, and the dwarves are assisting by tossing weapons barrel-to-barrel just in time for the next bad guy to magically show up. The Laketown fight catapults an orc easily thirty feet in the air off the end of a boat so he can have his throat cut in midair. These are dumb, silly scenes that would probably be a lot of fun in a Pirates of the Caribbean movie but not in this grim, poetic, epic fantasy (and by the way, this is a story about dwarves hunting treasure that was, in book form, nothing more than that, and it’s another fault of the film that it’s trying to blow it up into a massive, world-spanning epic).

And it’s altogether too violent. At its heart, this is still a story for children. An Unexpected Journey struggled with this, but The Desolation of Smaug seems outright ashamed of its origins, grasping at every moment to make sure we know it’s a big boy movie for adults. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is, to date, one of the most brutal PG-13s I’ve ever seen, but it’s adapted from an adult story and is the culmination of an increasingly dark trilogy and thus somewhat earns that right. The Desolation of Smaug almost seems determined to top it in violent imagery; I can’t even establish a real count of how many close-up orc decapitations you see in this movie. (One of their heads bounces off the camera in one scene.)

Beyond that, everything in this movie looks like a freaking cartoon now; I see no visual continuity between this and the rest of the series. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is one of the best-looking series of films of all time. It has film history’s greatest location scouts, some great sets, and some great costuming. It uses CGI where you’d expect it to — to extend sets and to give us things like trolls and three-story elephants and other things you can’t exactly find in the real world. The Desolation of Smaug uses CGI basically everywhere, and when it doesn’t, it somehow manages to make it look like it is. The sets look like sets, the costumes look like costumes, and nothing ever sinks in and makes you think it’s real. I like the designs here of Laketown and Mirkwood, at least in theory, but neither of them ever began to feel like real places.

This is probably the main reason why this movie has no atmosphere, but at the same time, it almost seems as though Peter Jackson has grown bored of this project. The Lord of the Rings is loaded with atmosphere — it’s the reason the Ringwraiths are some of my favorite movie villains. It knows when to move slowly and be silent. On top of that, it creates a fully realized world, and a lot of that is simply in its patience. The Lord of the Rings savors every last visual, turning its cameras slowly around mountainsides and rolling hills and cities and great towers, examining every nook and cranny. You feel as though you can hear, as if you’re there, the creaking of floorboards and the groaning of trees and the crumbling of ancient stone. The Hobbit, on the other hand, just quickly spins the camera around a CGI location, long enough for us to know, intellectually, what it is, and then calls it quits. There is nothing about this story that excites me more than its world, and there is almost none of that on display here. This movie looks, sounds, and feels like a video game — slick and polished and stylized and altogether too clean. The choreography and visuals might fit in a mainstream superhero movie, but not in this.

It’s not all bad, which, yeah, seems like a meaningless statement after all that. Jackson coaxes a memorable visual or two out of it here and there, hearkening back to the glory days of the original trilogy. There still isn’t an outstanding weak link in this cast. Ian McKellan is still the perfect Gandalf, even if the shoe is starting to fit a little too comfortably at this point. And Martin Freeman still embodies Bilbo exactly as one would imagine him while reading the book, even if all of the unnecessary additions and oversights mean he doesn’t get to do as much as he should.

Among the additions, I’ll confess to liking some of what’s been done with Bard (Luke Evans). It introduces him earlier, connects him to Bilbo and the dwarves, and establishes that his ancestor’s failure in stopping Smaug all those years ago is an old family shame. I’m hoping all of that will combine in the third film to make him a far more resonant character than the relative bit part he gets in the book.

And as the Riddles in the Dark bit between Bilbo and Gollum in An Unexpected Journey was the best part of that movie and about the greatest adaptation of that scene you could ask for, so Bilbo’s initial exchange with Smaug is this movie’s crowning achievement. Smaug’s design is perfect — he’s lithe and mobile but huge, and you get a real sense of that — and Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice just oozes sly, intelligent menace. The scene is also one of the few moments in this movie that really allows itself to breathe, building tension through silence and subtle moments and giving the audience a very clear sense of where everything is geographically. It’s a shame it’s about the only scene, but if they had to adapt just one part correctly, I suppose this is the one.

The sad thing about all this is that, until about a year ago, when people mentioned The Lord of the Rings, there would be a sense of reverence attached to it — one of the great literary trilogies, adapted into one of the great film series. Now, already, as happens to seemingly every franchise that lasts this long, people are spitting the name out of their mouths and only retroactively acknowledging the greatness of the original trilogy when reminded of it. I’ve never been the type to allow subpar or even terrible sequels and prequels to even begin tainting my opinion of the original property, and I’m still not. Nevertheless, it’s a shame to watch its stock fall like this. It’s no longer this great, shared, cultural thing — or it is, but we can’t talk about it like that without first acknowledging that The Hobbit movies weren’t up to the standard.

I don’t know. Despite my overall opinion of reboot mania, if Warner Bros. wants our money this badly, I can’t say I’d complain if we got an adaptation of The Hobbit in the near future that was A) one movie, B) for children, and C) produced with real sets and physical effects and locations and atmosphere. Honestly, Peter Jackson could even direct it; I’m certain at least some of this is his fault, given his propensity for excess, but I doubt he’s the source of all of this. Either way, I’d love an adaptation of The Hobbit on par with the trilogy that preceded it. This is a book that could lend itself to a great movie. Unfortunately, we’ve gotten nowhere near that. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey wasn’t great but at least had flashes of inspiration. And now, we’ve got The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, which plays pretty much the way you’d expect a blockbuster adaptation of Tolken’s classic story to play in 2013 — heavy on action, effects, and violence bordering on self-parody, and absent almost entirely of anything you might call a soul.

 

-Matt T.

Jobs (2013)

Starring- Ashton Kutcher, Dermot Mulroney, Josh Gad, Lukas Haas, Matthew Modine, J.K. Simmons, Lesley Ann Warren, Ron Eldard, Ahna O’Reilly, Victor Rasuk, John Getz, Kevin Dunn, James Woods, Nelson Franklin, Eddie Hassell

Director- Joshua Michael Stern

PG-13- some drug content and brief strong language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LR6yMl2FZSQ

Well, it was originally called jOBS. I don’t know what anyone was really expecting. The movie isn’t bad enough to deserve that title, but the one it did end up with, bland, straightforward, and unimaginative, runs almost directly counter to the philosophy of the man it’s about — a man who was driven by creativity, presentation, and design, perhaps more than functionality — and also, unfortunately, matches the feeling of the film itself.

This new biopic on the digital age begins with Steve Jobs (Ashton Kutcher) as a wayward college dropout in search of himself. When his friend, Steve Wozniak (Josh Gad), shows him a personal project he’s been tinkering with — a computer that allows you to see what you’re working on while you’re working on it — Jobs sees the potential for a technological revolution.

Gathering a group of friends and volunteers, he and Wozniak found Apple Computers in his parents’ garage, chasing after big businesses for investment. What happened next changed the technological world — and unraveled their friendships.

The main problem with Jobs is probably that it’s trying to be two different movies — a psychological examination of an important cultural figure who was both a major innovative force and, depending on who you talk to, not always the kindest of sorts; and an inspiring story of success and creation and people banding together to affect change. What comes out the other side is a serious drama played with the tone of a cheesy Disney movie from the 90s — The Social Network by way of Angels in the Outfield, if you will.

And neither of Jobs’ angles particularly works — in part because they fight against each other and in part because it doesn’t seem as though they’d work standing on their own.

This psychological speculation about Jobs — about why he was both a beloved figure and a guy who kind of left a lot of human wreckage in his wake — doesn’t really pay off because it never develops or builds off of anything or goes anywhere. One of the first things we see Jobs do to Wozniak is profit off of his efforts and then lie to him about how much money they made so he can take a bigger cut. One of the first things we see him do to his girlfriend (Ahna O’Reilly) is cheat on her with a woman who doesn’t know she’s The Other Woman — and who finds out because Jobs, unprompted, straight tells her as he’s leaving after sex.

There comes a point when Apple Computers is on the verge of success, and Jobs has recently abandoned his girlfriend after learning she is pregnant with his child. A friend of his offers the age-old line: “You’ve changed.”

After an entire half-hours’ worth of his happily taking advantage of anyone he meets who lets his or her guard down, I wonder: How?

Most of his friends stick with him a bit longer than that. He worsens, or so they say; as far as the audience is concerned, the only change is in the frequency of his outbursts rather than their intensity, and even that happens early on. When the last of his confidants leaves his side, his reason is that Jobs was originally in it to create something, to inspire, to change the world. He says that’s not the case anymore. Unfortunately for the audience, the specific nature of Jobs’ relationship with the success of Apple Computers is never really explored. We know what his motivation is, but not the why behind it. Jobs cites creativity and freedom to grow as his reasons for dropping out of college at the beginning of the film, but at the same time, he’s kind of a delinquent, stoner, “free spirit” type at this point, and it’s easy to take that as pretentious hogwash from a guy who actually has no clue what he’s doing.

The film wouldn’t really need to dig too deep into the reasons for Jobs being the way he is, and to its credit, it doesn’t expend a lot of energy trying. It seems, briefly, to try to draw some kind of connection between his behavior and his abandonment issues, which would be an interesting thing to contrast with his throwing out his pregnant girlfriend, not that the film does anything with that.

Jobs as a character mostly just wanders around in circles, being angry and full of himself at all stages of his personal development, which is fine, if that’s your thematic purpose, but the implication here — it’s more than an implication, really — is that we’re witnessing some dramatic worsening of his personal flaws, which simply doesn’t come across.

It takes a more redemptive turn with the character than something like The Social Network. It allows him to learn something and right at least one or two of his wrongs. It doesn’t particularly explore the reasoning behind his getting his life in order, though, which brings it more or less full circle in its stunted attempts at developing this personality.

The whole thing is making clear efforts at being a serious and nuanced drama, but the tone, as previously stated, swings more “uplifting family sports movie.” It tries to end on that note, with Jobs recording what I believe was an Apple ad that was published shortly prior to the company taking the world by storm, insinuating that the movie was truly about misfits struggling to make their mark. It falls flat, though, because the movie, well, isn’t really about this, at least, not in a focused sense. Few of the characters get much attention, other than Jobs and Wozniak, and everyone other than Jobs gets cycled in and out as the film proceeds from one highlight to the next. The film’s focus, past a certain point, is on Jobs’ personality rather than his friendships, and it’s basically never on their efforts. We don’t see much of what they’re doing; we don’t see their struggle. Mostly, Jobs tells everybody what features he wants their next project to have, and they complain that it’s impossible before doing it off-screen anyway. In terms of Jobs’ innovative talents, the film borderline saints him, turning him into some guru of creativity, filled with insight, right about everything always.

There isn’t even much of a sense of Apple’s impact on culture. We’re told a revolution is happening outside the walls of the company in which the cameras mostly reside, and that’s it. Otherwise, the film is about Jobs creating something while destroying his relationships and ending up alone, which makes the sudden turn into “inspirational crowd-pleaser” jarring and ineffective.

Emotionally, the movie’s a blunt instrument. Ninety-five percent of its feeling is loaded into the overbearing score, which kicks into high gear each of the many, many, many, did-I-say-many uplifting speeches that pop up in this thing, most of them belonging to Jobs but a few of them delivered by others. Whatever’s going on in any given scene is underscored so strongly that it approaches excessive Oscar bait parody. It’s true that these guys changed their culture significantly, but at the end of the day, they’re making fun, little gadgets, not solving poverty.

I think there’s enough going on in Jobs that a strong central performance would at least begin to salvage it. Unfortunately, Kutcher does not deliver that performance. I’ve never been a fan of his, so perhaps this is simply bias on my part. He’s got enough talents as a performer that he can be basically watchable in something lighter, generally comedy, though I could see a talented director finding a way to make him work in an action movie. But he’s shown little sign of being any kind of heavyweight actor, and Jobs is the proof.

The movie begins with the unveiling of the iPod, which puts Kutcher in old-person makeup and a fake beard. Here, he’s doing an imitation of Steve Jobs, and it’s a bad one. Kutcher’s normal voice keeps trying to fight its way out in between intermittent spurts of Jobs’ unique cadence. He tries to walk like Jobs, but it’s so self-aware that it becomes the only thing you can notice whenever he’s doing it. Outside of that, the performance is rarely the sort of thing that makes you cringe; beyond that opening scene and a portion of the ending, Kutcher mostly drops the imitation and just shows up as Ashton Kutcher. There’s nothing transformative about it, and none of it goes deeper than the surface. There are certain emotions that Kutcher sells well; unfortunately, explosive anger isn’t necessarily one of them. Overt sadness isn’t always one either. When he is pulling them off, he still isn’t always striking the right tone; there are moments when Jobs seems so moody and unhinged that his charisma becomes very secondary, and you start to wonder why anybody would willingly work for the guy.

Jobs benefits, fortunately, from a supporting cast that is mostly pretty strong and, in some cases, able to imprint characters in your memory based on very little screen-time. You’ve got veterans like J.K. Simmons and Dermot Mulroney, of course, and rising star Josh Gad as Wozniak is handily the film’s warmest and most likable presence — a character who has no ulterior motives other than to build cool stuff. The movie’s also more or less shot well, if unspectacularly, and it faithfully recreates the varying decades in which it’s set. The scenes in the 70s not only look like the 70s but look like a 70s movie — presented, of course, with the clarity of modern technology, but with a lot of sharp light and dull browns and greens. Everything gets whiter and more pristine as time goes on.

But in its script and its headlining star, Jobs flounders. It pays almost excessive homage to its subject while also trying to get under his skin and flesh out some personal negatives. It tries to land two completely different tones, one without payoff and the other without buildup. And it ultimately registers as a blip in the grand scheme of things, bland Oscar bait with no real imagination behind it.

 

-Matt T.

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013)

Starring- Will Ferrell, Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, David Koechner, Christina Applegate, Meagan Good, James Marsden, Josh Lawson, Kristen Wiig, Dylan Baker, Judah Nelson

Director- Adam McKay

PG-13- crude and sexual content, drug use, language and comic violence

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Elczv0ghqw0

The legend does indeed continue, and it’s more of the same, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing — even if it’s not a great thing either.

Set ten years, give or take, after the events of Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues finds Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) and now-wife Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) at the top of their game as the popular co-anchors of a daily national news program.

Then, Veronica gets promoted, and Ron gets fired, so he leaves his family in a huff and retreats into washed-up desperation. But when he gets an offer to join a new project — GNN, the first-ever all-news-all-day channel — he sets out to reunite his old team, Champ Kind (David Koechner), Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd), and Brick Tamland (Steve Carell), and do what Ron Burgundy was made to do: have salon-quality hair and read the news.

I’m not the biggest fan of the first Anchorman. I saw part of it a number of years ago and quit only about a third of the way through, finding that I just wasn’t getting it. After a number of critics whose opinions mattered to me continued to trumpet it as one of the best comedies of the last decade, I gave it another chance and found I had somewhat more appreciation for it. To date, about the only part of it I find consistently hilarious is Steve Carell as the lovable idiot Brick Tamland. But I found upon a second viewing that it actually does have some insight into the sexism of people who don’t think they’re sexist, even if it doesn’t do a whole lot with that. And who would really expect it to?

I think I assess the sequel at about the same level. It amused me. I don’t feel like I need to see it again in the near future. But it amused me. The first one’s probably a bit better, but if you liked it, odds are you’ll like this one, too.

I’ll give Anchorman 2 some credit for its comedy being a little more consistent all around, in that it’s not only Carell who gets the laughs this time. Make no mistake — he still gets most of them. But every member of the main cast has at least one big moment that I can recall and gets at least one scene in which he or she is the primary factor. Koechner and Rudd, who were both complete non-presences for me in the first one, have some great lines, particularly early on (Champ’s post-newsman career is hilarious), and I found Ferrell substantially less irritating than I normally do. The movie, as you would expect, has a lot of scenes where the actors are clearly just riffing off each other; some of these work, and others don’t. There are a few scenes where Ferrell will start making some strange noise or another; someone else will react to it and then run out of ideas and keep having the same response over and over again except with different voices and a more furrowed brow; and it’ll all go on much longer than it should. There are other scenes where it’s clear an actor gave two funny takes and director Adam McKay couldn’t pick between them, so he just sandwiched both of them in there, leading to some occasionally glaring continuity problems. There’s also a weird subplot, with Brick falling in love with a female GNN employee, Chani (Kristen Wiig), who’s just as stupid as he is, that’s sort of amusing for about five minutes but soon proves that if Brick doesn’t have someone to play off of, he becomes a guy randomly spouting non-sequiturs into empty space. Mostly, though, it works, at least enough to keep the whole affair from striking out completely, and the comic energy is quick and hard and keeps you distracted from the large part of the fumbled bits.

A number of gags are lifted from the first movie, which, ordinarily, would bother me, but for the most part, I found them comfortable and familiar. Mostly, this is because the sequel isn’t overly self-referential. There aren’t any jokes that will leave you scratching your head if you haven’t seen the first movie; they work within the context of their individual scenes. Beyond that, they aren’t outright copy/pastes; there are twists beyond superficial changes and additions. There’s another big scene in which Ron must be rescued from a dangerous animal that appears in a completely different context and as the culmination of a very, very (delightfully) stupid subplot. Of course, the news team battle returns, and this time, it’s so big and ridiculous and over-the-top that words fail me in describing how gleefully awesome it is, and the celebrity cameos are so inexplicable that that fact alone kind of becomes the joke.

Its biggest problem is that the comedy is all over the place. That’s fine, if being all over the place is more or less your M.O., i.e., Monty Python and the Holy Grail. At the end of the day, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues is basically a narrative film, and it needs to work as one. Unfortunately, it’s a mess.

The first one isn’t exactly one of the great stories of our time either. I’m not going to complain about that. It’s a silly ensemble comedy. So’s this one. But at least the first is largely bereft of subplots. You’ve got Ron, a womanizing alpha male, trying to deal with having a threatening female coworker who may or may not be just as good as he is and gunning for his job. There’s also a rivalry with the Channel 9 news team, but that doesn’t occupy a whole lot of space and at least tangentially relates to the main through-line. Most of the comedy is centered upon Ron being a big, obnoxious sexist in the process of becoming less sexist though not as much less sexist as he thinks.

Here, it’s more like the writers had a couple of bits they thought were really funny and decided to contrive whatever it took within the story to eventually bring about those bits. And after those bits, they just dropped whatever story and characters they needed to come around to that point. You don’t have an Anchorman movie without plenty of Ron-Burgundy-is-a-big-sexist jokes, so he has to leave his wife, who has to become a threat to his career again. That leads to another will-they-or-won’t-they between them, and it also brings about a subplot with Ron learning to relate to his son that’s there so we can have Ron-Burgundy-sucks-at-being-a-parent jokes. Ron’s workplace conflict this time around is that he has a boss who’s female and black, a relationship that exists solely so that we can have Ron-Burgundy-is-a-big-racist jokes. And the all-day news network is obviously rife for parody, and Anchorman 2 spends most of that time taking completely transparent shots at CNN and other stations with a speculate-first, facts-later approach to news reporting. Most of the movie is devoted to this, but it’s strange there isn’t more of it, considering how much comedy and insight you could mine out of that premise beyond the relatively surface-level stuff the movie aims for.

My point here is that you could make four or five movies out of everything that happens in Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues. Most of what I just listed is funny in the moment, but the fact that the movie tries to tackle all of those ideas keeps it from exploring the full comic potential of any single one of them. And on a narrative level, it also makes Ron Burgundy into a character who learns five or six completely different lessons in one movie seemingly at random and largely without justification. These subplots get dropped and reprised scene by scene, and characters and stories that feel like they’ve gone away keep coming back for seconds when they’re least expected. It’s randomness that feels like it ought and needs to be structured.

But you know what you’re here for. You’re here for the characters, who are intact; for the comedy, which can swing and miss but is usually pretty strong; for the performances, which are…weird; and for the satire, which is there, I guess, in some form. You’ll get that. If you don’t like the first one, don’t apply. If you like the first one and were hoping the sequel would really expand upon it and become its own thing entirely, don’t apply. But if you’re looking for some light laughs, some 80s kitsch, and a little bit of improv — eh, you could do worse.

 

-Matt T.

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013)

Starring- Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck, Ben Foster, Keith Carradine, Kennadie Smith, Jacklynn Smith, Nate Parker

Director- David Lowery

R- some violence

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ga0c0v-stK0

We’re going to get meta here for a second. I apologize.

The hardest part of writing these reviews is coming up with ways to start them. You’ve got to draw the reader in, establish some sort of premise, show newcomers that you can write, etc. There are a lot of ways you can do it. I’ve seen some critics weave reviews as stories with their own beginnings, middles, and ends. I’ve seen others write them as philosophical treatises that start with an idea and build upon that throughout the course of the article, using the film and its themes as a reference point. I do that sometimes. More often I do that journalistically — use the first paragraph to establish, in a general sense, my feelings, go over the plot, review the film. And because it simply seems to work, I tend to write a bit more casually when I’m in that mode. Normally, that’s fine — it works in the context of blockbusters and mainstream comedies and dramas, both good and bad. It works in the context of art films and awards bait that I simply don’t care for. If it’s a deeper, more complex work that actually makes me think, I’ll work the review around whatever ideas I got out of it. I’ll bind myself less to structure and more to letting the idea flow.

I say all this because movies like Ain’t Them Bodies Saints leave me at something of a loss. On one hand, it’s a genuinely good, well-crafted film with some strong performances and a few things on its mind, so going the flippant, casual route feels like a bad way to lead into what’s unlikely to be a lighthearted review. On the other hand, there’s an extent to which it’s just not all that inspiring — at least, to me personally — so, to start out with all this flowery writing about love and family and whatnot because it’s technically in the film, even though I don’t feel it in any overly profound way, would seem equally disingenuous and might set you up for a more glowing review than what you get.

So, all that said, I can just get on with it and talk about this thing.

Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) and Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara) are young and in love and dirt poor, living in a shack in the middle of nowhere. They’ve fallen in with — or rather been taken in by — a somewhat loosely defined criminal organization under the command of a man named Skerritt (Keith Carradine), who’s like a father to them.

When a robbery goes awry, one of their cohorts ends up dead, and Bob and Ruth are both arrested. Ruth shot — but did not kill — a cop during the escape attempt. Bob takes the fall for her, telling the police she had nothing to do with the crime. She waits for him to come out of prison, but years later, she’s moved on. She’s given birth to his daughter (Kennadie and Jacklynn Smith) and is being kind-of courted by Patrick (Ben Foster), the cop she shot — though whether he knows that or not is unclear.

But then, Bob escapes from prison. Pursued by the law and those outside of it, he makes his way back to his hometown, on an inexorable collision course with Ruth and the life she’s built without him.

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is the sort of title that’s vague enough to mean anything. My research indicates that David Lowery misheard the lyrics of a song as that and decided it would be the name for his movie. One could see the title both as a positive question — “Ain’t them bodies saints?” — or as a negative statement — “Them bodies ain’t saints.” Given where it goes and how it gets there, either one would be apt. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a movie about human conflict with no clear right answers — at least, no clear right answers when accounting for one’s own humanity and inability to lead a life that requires perfection in will and spirit. They all do wrong things, but even then, most of them are motivated by something pure.

Ruth clearly loves Bob. She seems aware of Patrick’s affection, which is kindhearted and sincere, particularly where her daughter is concerned, despite possibly coming from a strange place psychologically, and she’s comfortable enough to allow it to go on while holding him at arm’s length. Her spirit is holding out for Bob, but her mind seems to know better. When she learns of his escape, her first reaction is to break down and cry. In a way, she hoped it didn’t happen. We see in the first scene that no matter how angry she gets and no matter how much he deserves it, she’ll always be drawn back to him. When he escapes, she knows that he will come back into her life, that it will ruin her, and that she will do it anyway. Is it any surprise that Rooney Mara runs away with this movie? At this point, it shouldn’t be.

Bob means well, at least with respect to her, but one thing is clear — he loves what she means to him more than he loves her. He doesn’t, as the now-cliché goes, love her enough to let her go. He’ll be with her, no matter what. Is he even aware that his presence in her life will drag her into an unsustainable life on the run, this time with a young child in tow? If he is, he never lets on. He’s a freight train locked onto one track, heading straight for her. Given the way he looks and sounds, there’s only a certain range of parts Casey Affleck can play; his gift is in the number of angles from which he plays them. Sometimes, that’s as a hopeless, ineffectual, sniveling loser, i.e. Good Will Hunting. Other times, that’s as a disaffected young man who’s not immediately threatening but who seems, somewhere under the surface, as though he’s very capable of walking into a public place with a gun and making national headlines the next day. Here, he’s more the latter. He doesn’t do much more in this movie than your common criminal, but you always fear there’s that step farther he’s willing to go in his quest to be with his beloved.

Skerritt is every shade of complex. Despite running a hidden criminal enterprise, under some guise of respectability, he’s the one who, other than Patrick, lends the most stability to the proceedings. Even Patrick is compromised a bit by his closeness to the situation; if she leaves with Bob, how will he react? Skerritt is a trustworthy figure because of the clearness of his relationship to the situation — Bob is like a son to him, but his real son is dead, and Ruth is all he really has left. She’s happy, living cleanly, and out of trouble. He doesn’t want to hurt Bob, but you know one thing — he will if he shows his face around Ruth. The only question is how far he might be willing to go.

It’s fine storytelling. Characters have clear yet complicated relationships from which the majority of the drama is drawn. They have simple motivations that are contradictory; occasionally, that happens between multiple characters who you like or at least understand. It’s the sort of story that you know almost from the beginning has an ending that will be bittersweet at best. These characters have created for themselves a zero-sum game, without compromises, and there simply must be losers. The question is: Who will be the first one to reach toward the light and grasp something better?

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is the sort of movie that implies a lot of the details of its story in what characters say to each other, in what they don’t say, in significant looks that they give one another, in relational nuances, etc. Sometimes, this is effective; other times, it perhaps goes too far in the opposite direction. There are important happenings that might not make sense on a first viewing, unless your attention to detail is superb. There’s also the problem that, in certain circumstances, one knows what’s happening and can speculate about the motives behind it, but on occasion, clarity and specificity increases one’s connection with a character and deepens his or her moral dilemmas. That’s not to say that you spell things out in circumstances where that would be forced and insensible, but now and then, it’s okay to let the audience see something instead of having it happen on-screen.

Other than that, it’s hard to say. I hate to latch onto something like this, something that’s external to the film and not necessarily a product of its own quality or lack thereof, but I think the biggest problem with Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is simply that it reminds me of better films, namely The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. One is a Western; the other feels like one, despite being set in what appears to be the 1950s or 60s. Both star Casey Affleck in similar roles. Both are the stories of outlaws. Less superficially, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints certainly looks and sounds like Jesse James: The camerawork is slow and patient, emphasizing the natural scenery; the sets are creaky old homes full of life and personality; the lighting is dark and murky, as though a layer of unseen dust is thickening the atmosphere, and when there’s light, it’s soft and bright and reflects of the skin of the people bathing in it. Jesse James is also a quiet sort of film that tells much of its story through implication. But it much better understands where and when to use that technique.

The second-hardest part of writing a review is coming up with a conclusion. In my usual, journalistic style, I might summarize my points or simply give a closing statement indicating my “final” thoughts. If it was something that really made me think, I would end it whenever I found closure on the idea. Since Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is too artful for the former and not quite bold and unusual enough for the latter, I’ll simply draw it to a close here.

-Matt T.

The World’s End (2013)

Starring- Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan, Rosamund Pike

Director- Edgar Wright

R- pervasive language including sexual references

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hFo7eJR2cvc

So, The World’s End is a movie about drunk people fighting off an invasion of alien robots, and it’s…kind of one of the best movies of the year? Or at least one of my favorites? My brain is having trouble connecting the dots on that one. I mean, there’s that whole “directed by Edgar Wright” thing, which makes it perhaps not all that surprising. Still.

It’s weird that, on one hand, we really don’t make “action” movies this sincere, earnest, and joyous anymore, while on the other hand, we don’t really make them this intelligent anymore either. The World’s End is simultaneously one of the year’s dumbest and smartest movies, and it somehow maintains that in perfect balance. It might not be 2013’s absolute best, but it’s likely to be the one that leaves the broadest, most childish grin on your face.

Gary King (Simon Pegg) was on top of the world in high school. On graduation night, with their entire lives ahead of them, he and his close-knit group of friends — Andy Knightley (Nick Frost), Oliver Chamberlain (Martin Freeman), Steven Prince (Paddy Considine), and Peter Page (Eddie Marsan) — decided to take a crack at tackling the Golden Mile, a series of 12 pubs in their hometown of Newton Haven, ending at the infamous World’s End. They failed, but Gary remembers it as the greatest night of his life…

…Twenty years later, when he’s a washed-up nobody in treatment for severe alcoholism, living in the ruins of his life’s potential. Determined to reclaim some of that glory, he cons each of his friends — all of whom have gone on to largely successful careers and respectable lives — into joining him in returning to Newton Haven for another stab at the Golden Mile.

But as they march from pub to pub, strange things begin happening around them, and they soon realize that the people of Newton Haven have all been replaced with robots — or “blanks,” as they call them. The blanks seem content to let the five continue on their pub crawl so long as they don’t seem wise to what’s going on, so it seems as though the only way to survive the night will be to see the Golden Mile all the way through to the World’s End.

At the end of the day, what’s either going to make or break The World’s End for you is your response to the fact that it’s essentially an action movie in which the heroes are getting progressively drunker with each major set piece. If your reaction is, “That sounds stupid,” then something’s wrong with you, and you won’t like it. If your reaction is, “That sounds hilarious; sign me up,” as it was mine, then congratulations — you’re in for a treat.

In a weird way, Edgar Wright has become one of my favorite directors. I wouldn’t count any of his movies among my all-time favorites; I don’t even personally own any of them. And yet, I’m always eagerly anticipating his latest production. He’s one of the few working directors with an ability to create a style and overall tone that is both varied and immediately recognizable as his handiwork. You are always going to get a completely unique, yet warmly familiar, experience out of each of his films, and The World’s End is no exception, continuing what is, in my opinion, his 100 percent career track record.

The World’s End feels like an Edgar Wright film in its tone, and it looks like one in its swift and energetic visual style. But there are new twists and turns that make it every bit as fresh as it is comfortable in that sense that such movies are. It’s like spending time with old friends you haven’t seen in a while who have changed with age but remain, somewhere underneath, the people you remember from all those years ago.

Wright has always been famous for making insane genre-busters, beginning, of course, with world’s only rom-zom-com, Shaun of the Dead. What’s new here is the extent to which The World’s End takes that, throwing all these different elements into a blender and coming out with something that’s truly its own beast. It’s easiest to liken it to an extremely child-unfriendly Back to the Future, a movie that attempts to be every genre at once and somehow manages to succeed at all of them. The World’s End is a comedy, an action-adventure, a buddy movie, a light drama, a science fiction film. There’s a little bit of romance sprinkled around the edges in the form of Oliver’s sister, Sam (Rosamund Pike), who has a history with both Gary and Steven. None of this really falls flat, which, of course, has always been Wright’s most outstanding talent.

It’s almost difficult to criticize this aspect of his work, because frankly, I’m not sure how he does it. He manages to craft these deeply absurd and riotous comedies that nevertheless generate real emotional investment in their characters and build clearly and consistently upon themes — generally related to the onset of adulthood, here the need to let go of the past and live in the present moment with an eye on the future. It turns out that it isn’t just Gary who is hurting himself living in the past — each of the five is clinging to an impossible youthful ideals and pains in his own way.

I look particularly at Shaun of the Dead and think firstly of how well it works as a story — its central idea, of a man in a state of suspended adolescense finding his way to adulthood, while simple, is easy to track throughout the events of the film, even without ever being directly stated. I think then of how well it rockets back and forth between emotional states. In one scene, the characters are avoiding zombies by pretending to be zombies, and it’s funny. In the next, the charade has failed, and we’re genuinely afraid for them as they try to break into the pub. Then, they decide to fight back, and we’re getting pumped up as they prepare for the final confrontation. Then, the gun fails to fire, and it turns out none of them can aim, and it’s hilarious again — until the zombies start coming through. Wright has this impeccable ability to change how you feel about what you’re watching at the drop of a hat, and it’s rarely exhausting and almost never falls flat. I simply have no idea how he does it.

The World’s End is more of that, for the most part. It shows mainly in the fact that it’s a movie about the pain and struggle of alcoholism that also gets the majority of its laughs out of drunk people doing funny things. In one scene, these five bumbling misfits are having a hilariously over-the-top and silly battle with alien robots; in the next, their hidden and very real pains emerge, and your heart catches in your throat. Part of this, of course, is that Wright’s scripts are and always have been extraordinarily detailed and structured; you can see the ridiculous amount of thought that went into them, especially considering that most of them are goofy action comedies. The other half is the cast — Nick Frost, who’s good in a type of role he doesn’t usually get to play; Martin Freeman, who really sinks his teeth into this somewhat slimy, egotistical salesman who’s nevertheless harmless enough to be likable; Eddie Marsan, who’s puppy-dog-eyed and pathetic; and Paddy Considine, who tries to be reasonable but clearly is completely full of himself.

And Simon Pegg — I must qualify what I’m about to say with the disclaimer that it is not a statement of expectation, even in a fool’s chance sort of way. What I am saying right now is not that the Motion Picture Academy will nominate him for Best Actor in a Lead Role; what I’m saying is that, when it doesn’t, it will have made a mistake. He has never been this good in anything — nothing that I’ve seen, anyway. In a lot of ways, this performance plays to his usual comic persona of the upbeat, smarmy loser, but on an emotional level, he’s really digging into this one. Gary is nursing almost unsurvivable amounts of pain, and no matter how jokey and over-the-top he gets, you can see that raw ache behind his eyes constantly. It’s the sort of performance where there is never, at any moment, the slightest doubt what the character is feeling. The Golden Mile is the only thing he has to live for. There is only ever the next drink. Pegg’s performance is hilarious, but when it cuts you, it cuts deep.

It’s hard to say where The World’s End stands with respect to the rest of the so-called Cornetto Trilogy. I’ve always marked Hot Fuzz as my least favorite, and that still stands. I like it, but in large part only for the absolute comic genius of its climax — which, to be fair, does need the relatively dry first two-thirds in order to work the way it does. As for Shaun of the Dead, I’ll say that The World’s End is the funnier film by far, or maybe it just taps into my own personal sense of humor better. As another matter purely of personal taste, I immensely prefer the sci-fi aesthetic to the horror one, so The World’s End is just a touch more fun for me on a somewhat basic level. However, I suspect, as of right now, that additional viewings of both films will keep me more a fan of Shaun of the Dead than The World’s End. At the end of the day, I simply think the former is a stronger piece of storytelling — if only just. For one thing, while The World’s End navigates that same shifty and unpredictable tone largely with sure footing, there are a few moments where, for me, the seams started to show, where it would ratchet up the drama a little too quickly or not maintain it like it should, leaving one or two ideas feeling half-baked. There’s also its scattershot ending; Wright has tended to end his films with a spot of hope and redemption for his protagonists while larger things are going on in the background. The World’s End is the first of his movies where what was happening around the edges somewhat overpowered the themes’ ultimate culmination within the main characters. Moreover, I find the ending makes some very strange and confusing decisions in wrapping up its characters’ arcs.

But whether best, worst, or somewhere in the middle, we are talking a director with a very impressive track record here, and The World’s End is definitely another notch in the belt. It’s an explosion of ludicrous and big-hearted fun with great characters and a sense of humor that’ll keep you coming back for seconds and thirds and fourths.

 

-Matt T.

Man of Steel (2013)

Starring- Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane, Russell Crowe, Antje Traue, Harry Lennix, Richard Schiff, Christopher Meloni, Kevin Costner, Ayelet Zurer, Laurence Fishburne, Michael Kelly, Rebecca Buller

Director- Zack Snyder

PG-13- intense sequences of sci-fi violence, action and destruction, and for some language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T6DJcgm3wNY

Superhero movies don’t usually come this divisive. But it seems like you either love Man of Steel or you hate it. Maybe it’s the broad nature of my taste and interests or my moderate personality, but I generally don’t find myself overtly taking sides when that happens. If people either love it or hate it, that implies that it has both great merit and great flaws, and I have a tendency to see both. In fact, I’m hard-pressed to think of any love-it-or-hate-it movie about which I had particularly strong feelings.

That trend continues with Man of Steel. There’s a lot to like in this thing. There’s also a lot to hate. The unusual part is when and where these things happen.

Because of that, I’m going to review this two-and-a-half-hour Superman epic as two separate films. The first one covers the opening two-thirds of the film, which I actually really like. The second one covers the last third, which…well, we’ll get there.

And so, without further ado:

Man of Steel: Part 1

Well, you all know the story. Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and Lara Lor-Van (Ayelet Zurer) live on the planet Krypton, which is dying under the excess of its own people. With the core on the verge of explosion, Jor-El packs their infant son into a ship and fires him off into the cosmos to spare him from the coming calamity and to ensure that the people of Krypton will live on.

The child is found in a Kansas field by Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), who raise him as their own. He grows up to be Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), a man with godlike powers, wandering the Earth and trying to determine who he is and where he came from.

He learns that he hails from a distant world. A digital version of his father explains to him that he can guide the people of Earth to a better fate than that of Krypton. And so, Clark dons the cape and tights and becomes Superman, the hero of Metropolis.

Let’s do the largely insignificant but still bothersome gripes first:

• This is an adaptation. If you’re doing an adaptation, you should love the source material. If you love the source material, you will not be ashamed of it. If you are not ashamed of it, you will not come up with lame excuses for the silly costume and refuse to say the hero’s name because that would make the whole thing stupid or something. Just own it, guys.

• I’m not sure whether director Zack Snyder or the cinematographer made this call, but either way, for the sequel, they need to establish a zoom jar that they have to put a week’s pay into every time their fingers touch the zoom button during an action sequence, because seriously — holy crap, guys.

• As a rule for storytelling in general, lay off the Jesus metaphor unless you’re going to do something with it. There was probably a time in our history when our stories made this comparison more effectively, but that motif has since been conquered by people who think you put Jesus metaphors in your movie because it’s a movie and that’s what movies do. And now, it’s in everything, with no meaningful exploration deeper than: “Our hero is a good person. Do you know who else was a good person? Jesus.”

And now, back to your regularly-schedule review.

So, yeah, this first movie — or rather, the first-two thirds of this movie? I like this one. I might even really like this one, but I’m debating whether or not I’m willing to make that strong a commitment to its defense yet.

It has its flaws — and yes, some of them are pretty deep-seeded. There’s a lot going on thematically in Man of Steel — what it means to be a hero, what it means to set an example, what it means to trust in the goodness of others, what it means to use power responsibly, etc. That’s a lot to deal with, and I wouldn’t fault even a stronger film overmuch for failing to find a way to tie that into something more all-encompassing.

It contradicts itself on a few points. One of Jonathan Kent’s lines has already become somewhat infamous. Those on the “love it” end of the divide defend the movie by saying that Jonathan is confused and not really sure what to do with his extraordinary situation — and believe it or not, I agree with them. A movie like this has room for a character who’s confused about the difference between right and wrong. The movie itself could arrive at a place like that. But it doesn’t. Ultimately, Clark does make a choice, and the movie explicitly endorses that choice. That means, on some level, the storyteller has to attempt to justify that, and Man of Steel falls flat on this point.

It tells most of Superman’s origin in retrospect. When we first meet him, he’s already an adult, wandering faceless across the rural United States. We see his childhood in bits and pieces. I actually like this decision; it makes the movie feel less like a labored origin story, and it also streamlines it considerably. The flashbacks come more or less at random, though, and aren’t necessarily tied into whatever adult Clark is experiencing at the moments they come to him. In the end, people are products of their experiences, and this is as true of Clark as anyone — the film is rather openly suggesting this. But it’s difficult to tell in what sense he is the man he is. It’s difficult to tell the effect his father’s contradictory messaging — “You’re born for great things, but hide it because everyone will fear and hate you” — had on that person. Instead, the movie proceeds with this sort of vague emotionalism that builds over time and pretends, here and there, to be real character development. I’ve actually seen some movies work wonders out of this. Man of Steel does all right, but it leans heavily on visuals and music to that end.

I think people might ask why any of this is important. I know that, in writing, it sounds like a technical thing that critics fuss about because critics were born to fuss. But it really is the difference between a movie being essentially not boring and a movie genuinely engaging your emotions and drawing you into an unforgettable experience. Most fans of Man of Steel seem to be even bigger fans of The Dark Knight, and, frankly, I suspect this is why.

But if Man of Steel’s reach exceeds its grasp, at least I can say that it tried to be something, and even partially succeeded. Moreover, its attempts at saying something, at the very least, produce a side effect, unintended or otherwise, that actually ends up elevating it. These attempts at developing Clark’s personality through his interactions with his parents and, eventually, reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams), may fail in their strides at crafting some sort of ethos, but they succeed quite well in endearing you once again to these iconic characters. You get to see — not just get told about — the nature of these relationships and more or less what they mean to the characters. You understand why Earth and the people who inhabit it are important to Clark. You understand why he might believe, if not in people’s inherent goodness, then at least in their capacity for redemption. You understand why he loves his mother; you understand why he loves his father, even though his relationship with him is complicated and leaves him more twisted up than whole.

Amy Adams is a great Lois Lane. She’s back in spitfire mode and perhaps resembles her cartoon counterpart more than her Superman: The Movie portrayal. Maybe the damsel in distress thing is overdone at this point, but even then, it isn’t half as egregious here as in other adaptations — or even in movies in general. And can we talk about how great it is that she’s in on Clark’s secret pretty much from the beginning? Not only does this give them something that they share — and a reason for them to be connected — it does away with what was always the dumbest part of this story. Granted, it means there’s basically no tension between them in the entire movie, and they feel more like old chums than potential lovers, but hey — even that’s better than nothing.

I think what I like most about this part of Man of Steel is that even the most inconsequential characters feel like individuals. Even the much-maligned Superman Returns was good at this, come to think of it. You’ve got your more prominent supporting players, like Perry White (Laurence Fishburne), who here is still his angry self but feels more fatherly than he used to, which is a welcome interpretation. But even the bit characters whose names you’d be hard-pressed to remember get you involved in their brief trials in the moments when they arise. It’s not so much that these characters are interesting or particularly well written as that they’re well cast, and the movie has the sense to entertain very real and very human emotions whenever they’re endangered. It lends a human face to all the carnage.

Of course, it threatens to drown Superman in his own movie — and yeah, unfortunately, that happens again. The problem is not that he’s a bad protagonist — if this movie proves anything, it’s that there is a way to do this story effectively within a serious context, even if Main of Steel doesn’t quite execute it. It’s that our cultural need to make him a godlike figure means he can experience emotions, but he must experience them stoically and in quiet strength. When he finally finds the answers he’s been searching for his entire life, he just stands there, quietly, blank-faced, asking rote questions of Jor-El as they casually stroll around. On the rare occasions when he begins acting warm, it seems weird. He’s a protagonist you don’t expect to experience actual humanity — and that’s bad, seeing as that’s, you know, kind of the point. But if I’ve had any mantra throughout this review thus far, it’s “I’ve seen it done worse,” and, well, I have.

It’s for these reasons, and assorted others, that I don’t want to call the first two-thirds of Man of Steel great. But there is a lot there worth admiring. The writers do seem to care about these characters, and it looks as though they had fun playing them off each other. When Snyder is still within sight of his restraint, he is very precise about choosing the exact right shot to convey whatever emotion he needs from that scene. (Except for close-ups, which he needs to learn aren’t always his friends.) The entire movie is a triumph of art direction — it’s less the effects and more the distinct and creative designs given to all the sci-fi technology that shows up here. Actually, it’s nice in general to see a Superman movie aware of the fact that it is science fiction and able to revel in that. And Man of Steel doesn’t feel like a labored origin story and takes on the tone of an adaptation that actually has some reason to exist. It’s not perfect, but I really like the first two-thirds of this.

So, let’s talk about the last third.

Man of Steel: Part 2

So, this guy named General Zod (Michael Shannon) shows up. He and his crew are also survivors of Krypton, having been exiled prior to its destruction for raising a rebellion against the planet’s leadership. He’s come for Clark, as well as the Codex, which Jor-El also sent to Earth. The Codex contains the genetic information needed to raise up a new Krypton, and Zod — an uber-patriot — is determined to do exactly that.

Unfortunately, he wants to do it on Earth. Even more unfortunately, he intends to do it atop the tombs of all of humanity.

So, the last third of this movie — I hate it. It’s awful. It doesn’t capitalize on anything good about the first two-thirds. It goes full generic blockbuster. Any needed restraint gets tossed right out the window. It has no idea who Superman is or what he’s supposed to represent.

I should start with the fact that the final third of this movie is all climax. Yes, there is a final battle of relatively appropriate length that one might call the actual climax, but this is only true as a matter of degrees. The moment Zod first appears kick-starts the movie into a solid forty-five minutes of relentless action that varies in size and scope but not in tone or purpose and thus is largely indistinguishable. And it’s a shame, because the moment Zod first appears is also the movie’s last great scene, an effectively creepy and mysterious bit of filmmaking.

From there, Man of Steel immediately begins backsliding. Each scene drains more and more viewer goodwill. As of what the movie would call its actual climax, I had basically none left.

I’ll be frank — this movie’s finale is one of the single most tone-deaf endings I’ve ever seen. At this point, it’s likely I don’t even need to say why; nearly every reviewer on the planet has covered it. What begins as a movie that isn’t always subtle but knows where to be reserved and where to hold back and where the focus should be on story over action ends as one wantonly slamming every special effects button on the keyboard, throwing out set piece after set piece after set piece, divorcing every single one from the characters and themes, and considering none of them within the larger context of the story that’s being told. There is not an ounce of restraint in this ending.

Following a first two-thirds in which Clark Kent considers what it means to be a hero and what it looks like to do the right thing, the final third would indicate that he learned absolutely nothing. Oh, the movie says that he did. His actions do not bear this out. After hours of moralizing and philosophizing and speechifying about the greater good of humanity, the last hour focuses exclusively on wanton destruction for wanton destruction’s sake — present exclusively for the lights and colors and sensations, none of it playing into the emotional end result for which the movie’s been priming.

This is not a new idea. Having read it in dozens of reviews, I went into this movie knowing more or less what to expect from the climax. And what I expected was this — there’d be a lot of senseless violence for its own sake, and that would bother me, but most of it would be at Zod’s hand. I expected to agree with the critical consensus but to consider it a slight overreaction. Maybe the movie would lose its head here and there and persist in ignorance of Superman’s ability to stop some of the chaos, but that was the worst of what I anticipated.

I was so wrong. It’s so much worse. The fact of the matter is that after an entire movie’s worth of moral philosophy, Superman’s first action in the first action sequence is to deliberately pound Zod through at least three or four buildings, at least one of them very noticeably populated. The battles that follow don’t take place in populated areas because Zod is attacking them while Superman is trying to save them; they take place there because Superman specifically leads — or rather, punches — Zod there. Superman chose the field of battle, and the people of Smallville paid the price. The final fight in Metropolis is a bit less egregious, in that Zod specifically launches an attack against it, but not only does Superman not try to draw him away from the city, he continues his strategy of trying to kill him by knocking over buildings and throwing vehicles. Every now and then, Zod causes some destruction that Superman easily could have stopped — for example, one structure gets destroyed in a massive explosion because Superman decides to jump over a thrown semi-truck rather than, you know, catch it.

There are versions of this climax that could work. Heck, you could play out this fight sequence in almost exactly the same way with only one change — Superman is trying to defeat Zod while also desperately flying around, saving the lives of hundreds of doomed civilians, slowly realizing that even he is not strong enough to rescue everyone. That’s something that could fit quite well into the movie’s overall emotional structure. It would play meaningfully into the questions Clark is asking about his role in serving the greater good. But no — the movie forgets that civilians are even a thing and just has Superman break stuff.

The last moments of the climactic battle between Superman and Zod seem to have been the most controversial among diehard fans of the character. I’ll take the minority opinion here — I like it, or rather, I’d like it as the ending to a different movie, one where that’s a moral question that Superman is actually asking. His indecision here is baffling — the heroes’ entire battle plan, particularly the part of it involving the military, specifically hinged on this, and even if it didn’t, the excessively violent final battle almost comically dispels the notion that Supes could actually feel conflicted over the choice he has to make. After an entire movie’s worth of changes excused by this being a reinvention of the character, the writers suddenly count on you knowing who Superman historically has been in order to make the scene work on its most basic levels.

Here’s where I ought to deal with the most common defense of the movie against this criticism: “This is a new Superman for a new generation! He doesn’t have to be the same!”

And I guess that’s true. To borrow a quote from The Dark Knight, the new dark and gritty Superman is not the hero my generation needs but definitely the one it deserves.

And it’s true on a more technical level as well. Adaptations are rarely the same as their source material — particularly not when the characters have been around forever, with new stories and different takes popping up every year on every medium. That’s a question I wrestle with — how much can you change before you might as well create something original?

At the end of the day, Man of Steel clearly doesn’t understand what Superman signifies culturally. I think it would unquestionably benefit from doing so, but whatever. When you assess it purely as its own thing, apart from other adaptations or the source material itself, the question is completely irrelevant anyway, because not only does the last third of Man of Steel misunderstand Superman as a cultural figure, it misunderstands Superman as a character who has appeared in the movie up until that point.

I say again — the movie spends the vast majority of its running time building up Clark Kent’s morality. He questions who he is, he questions what he’s meant to do, he hesitates because he isn’t sure what’s right, he balks because he wonders if he might cause more harm than good, he fears what he might become, he is anxious over the burden he would have to bear. And then, after all that, literally his first act as a hero is to intentionally level half of Smallville. And after that, it’s to intentionally level half of Metropolis. Can you see why I might consider that jarring? Can you see why that would immediately strip all of the feeling, not only out of this climax, but out of this story? I suspect even the good parts of this movie will be tough watches on a second viewing, now that I know where they’re all headed. Some movies can earn this — Pacific Rim’s entire premise is basically robots wrecking crap — but they have a distinct difference in tone and style and set-up and ultimate purpose.

The core problem is this — for the first two-thirds, Man of Steel is about a guy named Clark Kent who becomes a hero named Superman. For the last third, it’s about a guy who sure looks like Superman but doesn’t act remotely like him. He’s an entirely new character we’ve never met before, fighting a villain we don’t much care about, and doing it in such a way that makes all the philosophy of the first half feel like pure posturing on the movie’s part. So, you’ll forgive me if I have a hard time getting invested in that.

I would love to see a successful resurgence of this character — as he was meant to be. Not just a paragon of virtue, but an ordinary man from a small town who must shoulder an immense burden and is determined to do so in such a way that he never fails to do what is right. We’ve a shortage of those heroes right now.

Unsurprisingly, dark, gritty, “realistic” Superman is no such hero. He’s another computerized excuse for what our adventure movies have become — relentless CGI destruction on a grand scale. And if that’s all Man of Steel was, I could shrug my shoulders and move along.

But Man of Steel… It was almost there. And that’s the real shame in all of this.

 

-Matt T.

R.I.P.D. (2013)

Starring- Jeff Bridges, Ryan Reynolds, Kevin Bacon, Mary-Louise Parker, Stephanie Szostak, James Hong, Marisa Miller

Director- Robert Schwentke

PG-13- violence, sci-fi/fantasy action, some sensuality and language including sex references

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nt59JjtWFSU

Not as bad as its reputation would suggest, but bad enough to make you squint at Jeff Bridges a little.

Nick (Ryan Reynolds) is not quite a crooked cop. Following a recent drug bust, he and partner Hayes (Kevin Bacon) did make off with a little gold they didn’t expect to find. His heart’s in the right place, and he does feel bad about it — bad enough that he makes up his mind to turn it over to his superiors.

He never gets the chance. On a mission to take down a major drug lord, Nick takes a bullet to the face and a long fall. He’s immediately whisked up into the afterlife. It turns out that some people go to their reward, and some people go to judgment — and a few in the latter group manage to escape back to Earth. It’s the job of the R.I.P.D. — the Rest in Peace Department — to capture these guys, called “deados,” and drag them back to judgment.

Because of his crookedness, Nick is given a choice — join the force and earn redemption, or take his chances with judgment. And so, he ends up a rookie with R.I.P.D. Boston, under the watchful eye of Roy (Jeff Bridges), a 1800s-era U.S. marshal, veteran of the force, and complete loose cannon.

R.I.P.D. definitely isn’t a good movie, but the general response had primed me for something hellish. What I got was something that, for me, swung a bit more toward the “forgettable” end of the spectrum.

If I can appreciate one thing about it, it’s that R.I.P.D. is a dumb movie that knows it’s a dumb movie and never starts acting like it isn’t a dumb movie. Part of me suspects that’s the reason for the backlash. We’re still firmly in the grip of “dark and gritty” action blockbusters, and openly silly films tend not to play well unless they’re really something else (The Avengers). Me, I’d rather watch something that’s stupid and knows it and has a sense of humor about it than something that’s stupid but pretending to be some kind of serious and intelligent work. R.I.P.D. is overly sly and tongue-in-cheek about its goofiness, which hurts it a little, but at least it’s never overly dark and rarely lapses into dumb philosophizing.

In all honesty, the movie is actually kind of fun for about twenty minutes or so; it just overstays its welcome big-time. Jeff Bridges is a ton of fun in almost everything he’s in, but he’s potentially one of the worst things about this movie. First off, his character is Rooster Cogburn. I’m not saying there are similarities here and there; I’m saying that Jeff Bridges makes no meaningful attempt whatsoever to differentiate this performance from that one even a little bit. Rooster Cogburn died and had to work in the R.I.P.D. in order to make up for his violent lifestyle. That’s what this is.

And I understand on some level that the character is supposed to be annoying. He’s supposed to bother Nick, and we’re supposed to find that funny. And it is, at first, but Roy’s complete inability to ever stop talking eventually starts to grate on the viewer as much as it does Nick. And again, it’s supposed to be annoying, but at a certain point, you start to get angry with the character and, by extension, the movie. I’m not really sure how that serves it in any way.

It’s more or less the same thing with Nick. I mean, Ryan Reynolds is still shooting for Likable Non-Presence, but still. The character’s purpose is mainly to crack wise about all the ridiculous things that are happening. He gets a couple of good lines early on, but the movie rapidly burns out on snark and starts having him cough out the easiest, most obvious remarks instead. The script also latches onto a few running jokes that, if they were even funny to begin with, definitely aren’t funny enough to be reprised as often as they are. That Nick and Roy’s avatars on Earth are an elderly Chinese man and an attractive blonde woman is maybe almost amusing once or twice but not the ten or eleven times the movie asks of you. There’s also a deado with big sideburns who provokes Elvis Presley jokes for the rest of the movie, because apparently he was the first and last person to ever have sideburns.

And R.I.P.D. is almost never good when it shoots for physical comedy. The laughs there are almost exclusively going to rely on the shot you select and the timing with which you edit it, and this movie just plain has no clue.

The lion’s share of the criticisms levied against this movie centers on comparisons to Men in Black. Unfortunately, I can’t really argue with that. It’s strange — there’s nothing inherent in the premise that would necessarily bring Men in Black to mind. Yeah, it’s a story about a supernatural law enforcement organization, focused on a newcomer adjusting to a new world he wasn’t aware existed while being supervised by a surly veteran, but by movie standards, that’s nowhere near as specific as it sounds. But the visual callbacks to Men in Black simply have to be deliberate. This movie’s entire world, from the pristine, sci-fi whiteness of R.I.P.D. Boston to the goofy, perhaps intentionally fake-looking deados, seems specifically calculated to echo Men in Black. It’s also striking a very similar tone.

R.I.P.D. differentiates itself enough that it never feels like an outright rip-off, but even so, it keeps you perpetually cognizant of the fact that there’s a better movie out there that serves up more or less the same goods.

And of course, whether it’s intended for camp purposes or not, it is very difficult to overlook the fact that R.I.P.D.’s effects are awful. The portal between this life and the next, which appears as a swirling gray cloud centered on a shimmering tunnel the color of the evening sky, could have been painted onto the frame for how multi-dimensional it doesn’t look. There are modern video games producing visuals on par with the detail and attention to lighting that went into the deados. The worst of it happens whenever a human character is swapped out for a CGI avatar during an action sequence. Nick’s death scene, for instance, resembles nothing so much as a crash test dummy being tossed over a guardrail.

It’s really the tone — the movie’s ability to cut loose and have a little bit of unpretentious fun — that keeps it, at the very least, within the realm of redemption. If you reined in Bridges a little bit, found a special effects team that knows how to work with a small budget (or otherwise shot around the CGI better), grabbed a director with a better handle on physical comedy, and tightened the screws on the script — more effort with the humor, a better attempt at tying the emotional stuff into everything else, etc. — you’d potentially have something pretty watchable. I still think the terribleness of R.I.P.D. is badly overstated. But do I recommend it? No.

 

-Matt T.