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Man of Steel – Kal-El that ends well

The S stands for "Strike a pose": Henry Cavill as Superman

The S stands for “Strike the pose”: Henry Cavill as Superman

It’s been 26 years since we last saw Superman punch a guy on the big screen. The sole attempt to bring back the last son of Krypton since Christopher Reeve last wore the red cape, 2006’s cringe-inducing Superman Returns, saw Supes battling his greatest nemesis yet: an inanimate chunk of rock. That anti-climax is perhaps the greatest of the reasons that film, and the Superman brand, has suffered so hugely in the public consciousness.

Rebooted here with the explosive verve of a Zack Snyder movie, this take on the Superman myth satisfies both those who crave faster-than-a-speeding-bullet aerial fistfight-ery and those who like their Christ allegories with really good hair.

Superman Returns hammered home its Christ metaphor with Superman descending from the sky, resurrected, in cruciform pose. Man of Steel attempts to one-up it, recreating that divine posture—although at a less pivotal moment—and even having a scene where Clark Kent soul-searches in a church, haloed by stained glass. But it’s actually a lot cleverer than this. Clark, born Kal-El, is planet Krypton’s equivalent of the Virgin Birth, a child born through natural reproduction on a dying planet where kids have been eugenixed in Matrix-like pods for generations. Even before the planet crumbles due to the hubris of its ruling elite, Kal-El is already the last hope for his people.

As the fascist General Zod (Michael Shannon) mounts a coup, Kal-El’s father Jor-El (an exceptionally enthusiastic Russell Crowe) embarks on a quest to preserve the history of his people, showing the sort of physicality that escaped Marlon Brando back in 1978. The “Codex” of the Kryptonian people is retrieved and launched into space with the miracle child, just as Zod’s rebellion is brought to a close and the planet devours itself in a bowl of lava-Os.

Jor of the Worlds: Russell Crowe showing his son how staring into the distance is really done

Jor of the Worlds: Russell Crowe showing his son how staring off into the distance dramatically is really done

After this extended introduction to this slightly different take on the Superman origin, David S. Goyer’s screenplay eschews the chronological tracing of the early years of Jor-El’s life as Clark Kent, of Smallville, Kansas, in favour of cutting to his Bruce Wayne-like journey of self-discovery, helping those in need across America with less than sufficient subtlety for the only alien on Earth. In moments of reflection Clark thinks back to suitable lessons from his youth, the calming tone of his mother Martha (a finely aged Diane Lane) and the baseball coach morality of his father Jonathan (Kevin Costner, back with a very calm and insightful vengeance).

The intercutting flashbacks allow us to get to Clark’s discovery of who he is more quickly, uncovering a lost Kryptonian craft hidden in the Arctic and downloading his birth father’s memories, giving Crowe considerably more—and welcome—screen time. Soon he is wearing the old blue, red and bit o’ yellow and blasting around the planet like he owns the place. But crafty reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is on the trail of this super-human do-gooder, and a vengeful General Zod emerges from the shadows of space searching for the Codex and the son of Jor-El.

Snyder, a filmmaker whose hitting and missing along the years have never allowed critics to deny his ambition and flair, shows remarkable restraint here, choosing to focus on the scale of the world(s) his story is set in instead of drawing all attention to action and movement; there is not a moment of his signature slow-down/speed-up style of editing, allowing the super-powered Kryptonians to blast around the screen at their own dizzying speeds. The scenes on Krypton could rival Avatar for sheer scale of world-building, while the flashbacks to Kansas are filmed with the tenderness and tone of an Oscar-nominated coming-of-age tale: the director of 300 shooting like Richard Linklater meets Terrence Malick. Who’d have seen it coming?

Kent touch this: Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as Pa and Ma Kent

Kent touch this: Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as Pa and Ma Kent

The story is well-known, though there are a few new beats to this drum. Superman is unknown to the people before Zod and his army arrive. Lois is on to the son of Jor-El long before she meets Clark. Kryptonite and Lex Luthor play no part in the tale, although the latter’s industrial might is evident in one scene. A new extreme take on the life lessons Jonathan Kent teaches Clark provides one of the film’s most affecting scenes.

The action and drama are updated suitably, and there are some clever allusions to the world of today, with Superman in one scene forced to down a military drone sent to track his location. But the failure to properly evolve the Daily Planet, the “newspaper” of record, seems like both a missed opportunity and a cop-out. The internet is briefly mentioned as an alternative means to break a story, but there is no feel for the crisis in the industry. The scenes in the Daily Planet offices feel terribly dated, with even the layout of the newsroom floor looking like it’s from the 1970s. As if struck by a magic beam fired by some politically correct supervillian, editor Perry White is now black and Jimmy Olsen is now Jenny—all good progressive things, if only the characters were given anything to do.

The script is both the salvation and damnation of Man of Steel. Goyer, whose finest work rests in The Dark Knight trilogy, created this story with producer Christopher Nolan, taking a break from bats. The Batman Begins structure of the early earthbound sequences revels in this reunion, and Goyer’s screenplay is superb at contrasting the patriarchs and the lessons they imbue upon their shared son. But the dialogue outside of these father/son scenes is often dull, and almost every last one of Goyer’s jokes falls sigh-worthily flat. One military character has an identical arc to a police character in The Dark Knight Rises, almost scene for scene. The burden of two enormous themes—what does it mean to be human? and; what does it mean to be the last of one’s kind?—proves too much for Goyer to balance, and by the end one of these questions has been all but completely dropped.

British actor Henry Cavill, following performances in The Tudors and Immortals, shows himself a strong leading man as the adult Clark Kent. Preposterously handsome, like TV Clark Kent Tom Welling but sculpted in marble, Cavill’s presence dominates when he is not pitched against the two Robin Hoods, who utterly steal the film. Cavill may not be given too many opportunities to show off his talents, but in the few scenes where it counts his face unleashes an intensity and pain that totally sell the moment.

Hard-knocking journalism: Amy Adams as Lois Lane

Hard-knocking journalism: Amy Adams as Lois Lane

Amy Adams is less lucky as Lois, working with an awkwardly written version of the character, but still ever-believable as a successful female reporter. Zack Snyder, whose Sucker Punch has been the subject of more women’s studies PhDs than Sylvia Plath (FACT), refrains from making an obvious sex symbol out of Lois, keeping her professionally dressed throughout, and able to give as good as she gets in debate with even the most alpha male of men. If Goyer had been more successful in writing both her character and the love story between Lois and Clark, Adams could no doubt have stolen the show. Michael Shannon is similarly let down by lax characterisation, but his undeniable intensity makes him a riveting Hitler-esque Zod to Terence Stamp’s more Rasputiny take.

Hans Zimmer may be no John Williams, but his score rises at the most crucial moments and lingers in the ear with the same fire, if not the same bombast. This is a film with an almost faultless soundscape, and the sound effects on Krypton help sell it as both a believable world and society. The production design on Krypton is fantastic, with devices using Pin Art-style illustrations to communicate instead of video screens, and the costumes looking like Liberace-in-space, flamboyant but superbly detailed.

This all brings us back to the action, because yes—indeed—Superman does punch someone in the face. Several times. For the most part Snyder conceives a remarkable, rocketing look to his action scenes, although the speed can be hard to follow. Clark’s first battle with the Kryptonians is thrilling but overstays its welcome, and the camera at times is more concerned with framing the logo of an IHOP than showing the fates of those thrown through its windows. A battle with a tentacled robot is a poorly edited and indecipherable mess, but the payoff is immense. A re-enactment of a major scene from Independence Day slips from homage into theft, and the film’s recurring usage of the fatal consequences of buttons being only half-pressed down is insulting to the audience.

Zod man out: Michael Shannon looks, as ever, as if he is only moments away from snapping and killing everyone

Zod man out: Michael Shannon looks, as ever, as if he is only moments away from snapping and killing everyone

The carnage of the finale is unspeakable, and the presence of Transformers 3 DP Amir Mokri seems hardly a coincidence, with buildings crumbling and exploding all across Metropolis in a veritable blitzkrieg of CGI. It looks superb, but with Goyer choosing to focus on only three civilians throughout the colossal donnybrook there is little sense of human tragedy in what must be a ground zero of Nagasakian proportions. The Avengers was far more concerned with the average citizen.

Like the film itself, the action sequences are troubled, but overall satisfying. Snyder has not made the magisterial Superman film that people had hoped for, but he has made the most exciting take on the tale yet. Sequels will come, and the end earns them. But no scene is more deserving of a Superman franchise than that moment when Henry Cavill first takes to the skies, as if lifted by Zimmer’s score, and jets across the world, Snyder’s camera slamming from left to right, struggling to keep up with the superhero. It’s the cinematic moment the character has been craving since Action Comics #1.

You won’t need to believe a man can fly; you’ll see it.

3/5

(originally published at http://www.nextprojection.com)

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Oblivion – Ob-li-vi, Ob-li-va, Earth goes on, bra!

Last Man Standing: Tom Cruise in Oblivion

Last Man Standing: Tom Cruise in Oblivion

Torturing us all for the shock success of Battle: Los Angeles back in early 2011, Hollywood has begun its own alien onslaught, flinging some half dozen end-of-the-world science fiction films at us this year.

The first up is Oblivion, Joseph Kosinski’s follow-up to the flashy and distracting, if slightly moronic and empty, Tron: Legacy. An eye-wateringly glossy post-apocalyptic mystery adventure, it is a finely assembled work, that has been finely assembled from other, better films.

Seventy years after a war with alien scavengers, the Scavs, Earth has seen better days. The destruction of the Moon has caused geographical discombobulation on an Emmerichian scale, and the plundering of the resources of what used to be the blue planet has meant that mankind has had to relocate to one of the moons of Saturn. The Scavs, defeated, have scurried in fragmented numbers underground.

Tom Cruise plays Jack Harper, one of the last humans remaining on Earth, as part of a clean-up detail. A high-tech mechanic, he repairs the drones and devices that keep the Scavs at bay and recoup the last of Earth’s energy for the new human homeworld. His only contact is with his communications officer Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), who keeps him advised on every move he makes. They live together in a Big Brother house in the sky, and, at the slightly creepy encouragement of their mission commander, Sally (Melissa Leo), who directs them in fractured messages from beyond the stratosphere, to engage in carnal discourse, because that’s what makes “an effective team”.

But not everything is as it seems. Jack has incomprehensible flashbacks to a time before the war, despite his memory having been wiped for mission security reasons. He collects trinkets from the once great civilisation of New York, now flooded in silt and rubble: toys, records, books, a Yankees cap. Soon the Scavs begin to take a personal interest in Jack’s movement, and then the woman of his dreams literally comes crashing back into his life. What, exactly, is Jack and Victoria’s mission?

Date with destiny: Olga Kurylenko and Tom Cruise recall better times

Date with destiny: Olga Kurylenko and Tom Cruise recall better times

If any of this sounds familiar, you shouldn’t be surprised; it should. “Derivative” is a word that gets thrown around a lot, and in relation to science fiction it’s as commonly used as “darker” is in superhero movie reviews. But Oblivion might just be the most derivative film ever made. Like, class action lawsuit derivative. Its central ideas and themes are fused from a number of recent and classic science fiction films. Visually, its space pods and structures hearken back to countless other sci-fi designs. Even its action scenes seem overly familiar in pace and choreography.

Take the drones – almost identical to the pods from 2001: A Space Odyssey, they are similarly controlled by a red electric eye. Instead of claw arms, they have cannons which fold out from their sides like EVE from WALL•E (and they share her iPod veneer). But reacting to Cruise’s raising of his weapon, and failing to react to his lowering of it, the drones show an identical programming to ED209 from RoboCop. When a drone is summoned for termination purposes, a drone without a minty white coating appears, revealing a black skeletal series of patterns across it in the vein of a T-800. At a moment of supposed high tension the Terminator allusion is simply guffawable. That’s four films unmistakably sampled in one brilliantly realised prop.

Other films blatantly referenced or “borrowed from” in Oblivion include (in alphabetical order to avoid spoilers): Aliens, I Am Legend, Independence Day, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Matrix Revolutions, Moon, Planet of the Apes, Predator, The Road Warrior, Silent Running, Solaris, Star Wars, Stargate, Total Recall, Transformers: The Movie, War of the Worlds. It’s actually a fun game to count them, although repeatedly it forces you out of the film, as Oblivion makes you think of beloved classics instead of, well, the story in progress. Kosinski, directing from a script polished by Toy Story 3’s Michael Arndt and The Departed’s William Monahan but based on an unpublished graphic novel he had written himself some years back, is all too unsubtle in his inspirations, and they cloud the fact that at many levels Oblivion is quite a strong film.

Cruise takes a role that only a select few actors could have made work and, despite limited characterisation, holds the movie together when it is at its weakest, most ramshackle points. Riseborough plays the increasingly Pod Peopled Victoria with some admirable restraint. Olga Kurylenko does her best in a role the film’s four writers all managed to overlook, while Morgan Freeman shows up to take the most relish he has in any role since Wanted.

On a technical side, the movie looks sublime, and not much of that can be handed to its… influences. Kosinski has a great feel for the visual, and refusing to shoot in 3D to keep the whites dazzling and the blacks standing out  was a great decision that shows a huge amount of confidence in the director on behalf of production studio Universal. Life of Pi’s D.P. Claudio Miranda brings every image sharply to life, while the soundtrack by French electronic outfit M83 pulses with an energy that drives much of the film forward and escalates some of the weaker drama.

In the end, Oblivion falls on its own laser sword*. It looks and sounds great throughout, but assembled like a Frankenstein’s monster from so many superior films not only dilutes the enjoyment but dilutes its own sincerity. “Earth is a memory worth fighting for” runs the tagline, but the memories on display here are all film memories, scavenged from the sci-fi greats of the ’50s to the present. They are worth fighting for, and remembering their origins and not the film that dared to harvest them all is what matters.

Oblivion is a superbly crafted film, but its memory will not be long for this world.

3/5

 

 

*Laser swords are one of the only clichés of the genre Oblivion skipped, thankfully.

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An interview with Len Wiseman

Len Wiseman on set

I recently interviewed Hollywood action movie director Len Wiseman for Film Ireland magazine while he was in town to promote Total Recall (2012). We discussed his new film, how to structure an action sequence, the unfortunate censorship of Live Free or Die Hard/Die Hard 4.0 and the big question of the day: which was the better action movie, The Avengers or The Dark Knight Rises?

It took making a movie with Colin Farrell to get Len Wiseman to Ireland. The Californian director of Total Recall was on his star’s home turf for the European premiere of the movie, when I spoke with him at Dublin’s Merrion Hotel. Busy with press and the premiere that day, he assured me that Farrell had promised to show him the town before he left.

Wiseman, a director of high-octane video game-influenced action blockbusters was a strong choice to put in charge of this sci-fi remake, originally made by the Dutch master Paul Verhoeven in 1990. That film starred Arnold Schwarzenegger as Doug Quaid, a blue collar worker who discovers all his memories have been implanted, and he is actually a spy. Big shoes had to be filled, especially when remaking a film that was so commercially successful while also wooing critics. Wiseman launched his name through the Underworld movies, vampires versus werewolves romps, which he created and now produces – the series has now taken nearly $500,000,000 worldwide. His Total Recall, following The Dark Knight Rises into cinemas, has not had as warm a reception thus far. So what drew him to the project?

“It kind of came to me out of left field,” he admitted. “I’d been focused on prepping a different movie at the time that didn’t go through. They sent me a script, I actually read it with quite a bit of scepticism about what it would be. I’m a fan of the original, so I was more reading it trying to convince myself why not to do it. I was just hooked by the direction that it went in, it was a very different take, and it felt like such a different experience than the Verhoeven film.”

Wiseman is a fan of the original film, but confessed when he saw it first, aged 17, he was “just going to see the next Arnold action movie!” Years later, in college, he read the short story it was based on, ‘We Can Remember It For You Wholesale’, by sci-fi soothsayer Philip K. Dick, unaware of the connection. “I remember reading and thinking: ‘Hey this is that movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger!’ When I read the story it did have a very different kind of Quaid to me, and it was a different experience. So that’s what made me feel both more comfortable and [with the script]; it reminded me more of the short story.”

Total Recall (1990) and Total Recall (2012): How times have (sort of) changed

Verhoeven’s Total Recall can still surprise now, given that it touches on concepts such as “what is reality?” nearly 10 years before The Matrix and eXistenZ. So what message can Total Recall carry now, another 12 years later? Wiseman said the idea of implanting happier memories than the ones we have, through the sci-fi product ‘Rekall’, is more pertinent now than ever. “If the technology actually gets to the point where we can experience something like Rekall, is it the right thing to do?” he suggested. “Is it safe? To me it’s amazing that Philip K. Dick’s work, not just in this story, is so relevant. Some people just have a window into our future and where we’re going. I mean even Facebook, look at what we have today, we’re ordering up, putting up the pictures that we want, saying this is who I am, how I’m describing myself. I’ll leave out all the bad stuff. This is my alter ego of me, who I want to be. Rekall is an extension of that science. An extension of our technology of being actually able to say ‘this is who I want to be’.”

This Total Recall has a particularly glossy look, with its story shifting between a futuristic London and its enslaved colony in Australia. Influenced by the likes of Blade Runner and Minority Report and Wiseman’s ever-growing collection of sci-fi artwork (he refers to his home as a “big geek fest”), the director explained that his team also borrowed the look of Rio de Janeiro’s slums and Asian fishing villages to create a “hodge podge” of interlocking cultures. The decision to bathe the film in light was taken on his own distaste for underlit action movies. “I love to see what is going on,” he said, “both in my camera movements, in the way that things are choreographed. [Cinematographer] Paul Cameron did an amazing job. We talked about it a lot; that’s why there’s so much practical light within those sets, so we can have a reason to splash light all over the place. I think you can have a very dark image – Total Recall is very dark – but you can still see everything because the contrast level is able to be really dark when it’s black, but as long as you’re putting spots on everything that you need to see it works.”

And what about those extended, frenetic action scenes? “I think it’s very important for an action sequence to be its own story, and have a first act, second act, third act within the action. Otherwise it’s just relentless action – it doesn’t make any sense. There is a difference between just an action scene and an action sequence, and what it means to me is that in an action sequence you can remember the sequence, it should tell some story and ratch it up and tell its conclusion rather than just be noise and shaky cameras.”

Wiseman directs Jessica Biel

Perhaps the film’s finest moment is a sequence where Farrell’s Quaid rediscovers his talents as a spy and surprises himself by taking out a dozen SWAT team members in what appears to be a single, swooping take. “It appears to be!” Wiseman laughed, like a magician who delights in revealing his tricks. “That was something that was very difficult. It’s funny because when there’s something that people don’t quite grasp they go *snap fingers* “CG”, because we’re in a day and age where that’s commonplace. But it was 100% practical – it was put together with what are called super slider rigs, that they shoot football games with. They’re these remote cameras that move at about 35mph so you can’t man them. It was a lot of R&D on our end, but we put seven of those tracks together and what would happen is one of these cameras would go along at 35mph and when it crossed another one the computer would pick up and this one would take off from where the other left off. And we stitched all of those together. It took two days to shoot. Colin and the guys had to do the fight 22 times!”

Wiseman was clearly impressed with his leading man. “I had the funnest time with Colin. He’s a complete pleasure, and such a professional as well. And immensely funny, that’s one thing really struck me. He’s very talented, he has a hold body of work that’s wildly intelligent, but I was not aware of just how quick witted and funny he is. It really makes a difference on set to have somebody who’s devoted but also keeps it fun.”

Colin Farrell and Kate Beckinsale: Not-so-happily married

It’s less easy to ask Wiseman about working with his leading lady, Kate Beckinsale, without feeling as though your probing like a tabloid mag; the pair are married, having met on the set of the first Underworld film. She plays Lori, a spy pretending to be Quaid’s wife, keeping him under her thumb before having to hunt him down when he discovers who he is. I asked Wiseman if it’s coincidence he gave her character all the best lines. “A lot of those lines are her!” he replied. “Part of what I wanted from Kate and why I thought she’d be great for this movie is that people don’t realise through the Underworld movies or through the serious dramas and indies that she’s done is that she has such a sharp and fun and cunning sense of humour. And I knew that she would be able to bring a lot of that to the film. I wanted Laurie to have a taunting quality to Colin, and I knew that she would know how to bring that. So a lot of the one-liners are hers.”

Very much in demand these days, Bryan Cranston was cast as the totalitarian Chancellor Cohaagen, his first villainous role in a movie since his character Walter White shifted from hero to villain in his TV series Breaking Bad. The choice was an obvious one for Wiseman. “He was my first choice. I was watching Breaking Bad at the time and I was like ‘I’ve gotta work with this guy’. The thing that surprised me about him is that I had no idea about his other show (the sitcom Malcolm in the Middle, which ran for six years in the early ‘00s), so I didn’t see that side of him. I only know him as Walter White. So he shows up and I thought ‘You know what, this guy has such a menacing quality about him that he may be difficult to work with’. I was setting myself up for who knows. He could not be a sweeter guy! And I kept waiting for that [mean] side of him to come out … because he’s so great in that role as Walter White. He’s a dear guy but just has a great presence in the film.”

Colin Farrell regrets trying to steal meth from Bryan Cranston

Wiseman went on to tell me about his pre-Underworld days, when he worked as a props master on Independence Day director Roland Emmerich’s biggest films of the 1990s. He described the experience as “a bit of film school for me in terms of problem solving, technique and using a budget”, before sharing an anecdote in which Emmerich, despite having a $75,000,000 for Independence Day, was ordering sets to be built at the last minute from leftover pieces of other film’s sets. “We literally built this little set in an hour of a hallway that was needed, just on the fly, and then walk them through and done. That was really helpful.”

With a fifth film in the Die Hard series due next year, was Wiseman ever in the run for to direct it, following his successful fourth instalment Live Free Or Die Hard (aka Die Hard 4.0) back in 2007? “It was, it was. Bruce [Willis] kind of went out there publicly and said so, but I was already working. I would love to jump in the ring again, but I was already well into the mix.”

Bruce Willis in Live Free or Die Hard (4.0)

The director also admitted his disappointment at how the studio censored that film. “I shot a rated R movie,” he insisted, and referenced the ‘Harder’ cut available on DVD. “I had no idea it was going to be PG-13; that came in halfway through the process. And I gotta tell you as a fan I felt like “I’m gonna walk.” If they it PG-13! You know Bruce was really up in arms about it and everything. But in the end it was the most expensive Die Hard. It was also my first studio film, so I lost that battle over the rating. I’m not big on doing the cartoon gore. But McClane is McClane, so that’s really why I was glad to get that (the extended cut) out.”

The question all action movie fans need to be asked this summer is The Avengers or The Dark Knight Rises? Wiseman seemed very torn up about having to choose. “I actually thought beforehand ‘Dark Knight Rises is gonna hit it out of the park, but Avengers, that’s gonna be interesting, how are you gonna pull that one off?’ And I mean I was just watching [Avengers] thinking ‘I’m really liking this. It’s servicing the characters very well, it’s tying in very well, it’s really fun’, and I completely got into. I gotta say, the end of Dark Knight, how it all wrapped up and tied up I really liked. But Avengers was just… you walk out of that movie saying ‘That was so much fun.’ The difference is: Avengers I’ve seen twice.”

Kate Wiseman in Underworld: Evolution

So when the media circuit, or “circus” as Wiseman corrected me, for Total Recall is done, what will he do next? More Underworld? “I actually don’t know about Underworld!” he admitted, somewhat sheepishly. “I should be the right guy to ask, but I actually said there wasn’t going to be a fourth one! So I’m not sure about that. I’m producing a movie called Darkness, which is based off the Top Cow comic books. Then I’ve got two scripts that I’m working on – I’d love to get back to my own creations again.

“That’s how I started my career. Sequels and remakes are a thing of the past for me, I’d love to go back to getting my scripts off the ground.”

Total Recall is out in cinemas in Ireland and the UK now.

(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)

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