Thursday, 20 June 2013

Man of Steel, Superman Returns and Edward Everett Horton - Reviews #165

Two helpings of Supes, plus a good comedy from the '30s and a bad one from the other week.

Man of Steel (Zack Snyder, 2013)
- It'd serve us right if Man of Steel was rubbish. Bryan Singer gave us the great Superman movie in 2006, and how did we all respond? Well my hands are clean, but you lot hated it.

Man of Steel isn't rubbish, though, far from it. It's a frequently brilliant origin story with a fertile imagination and a firm grasp on both its characters and its hero's mythology, resulting in several of my favourite passages from any superhero movie. But it's also infuriatingly flawed: in trying to correct the "mistakes" (scoff) of Singer's Superman Returns - an artistic success but a commercial flop, at least in the context of its genre - it drowns us in action scenes that are far too multitudinous in number, and ultimately just quite tedious, characterised by poor editing (about half the time it's completely unclear what's going on) and the slow-paced fetishing of equipment. Snyder clearly thinks it's fascinating how a Krypton spacecraft would be assembled. Anyone else? Thought not.

We begin on Krypton, with a fairly good prologue that's heavy on anti-communist barbs straight out of a Cold War-era comic book, but also has a few nice, morally complex ideas about how people exist and behave within both ailing democracies and totalitarian regimes. As Krypton sleepwalks into catastrophe, its lawmakers too uncertain to act, Jor-El (Russell Crowe) spies the chance to safeguard his race's future, in the shape of a secret son (unnecessary shot of a baby's willy alert) who will be spared the usual pre-determination (commie alert) and can instead do whatever he wishes - once he's found a new home, having been ejected from the exploding planet in a little pod. As sound as this plan seems, it doesn't go down well with General Zod (Michael Shannon), an obsessive self-proclaimed protector of Krypton. Thankfully his plans to kill the kid are thwarted at the last instant quite by chance; he's enraged the government by trying to stage a coup, and now they want a word. Though Shannon will soon be scuppered by a rather uninteresting part - not to mention his unvarying line readings - there's one fantastic piece of acting from him, after Crowe laments his former ally's transition from hero to misguided villain. Though he always just looks like a mob heavy, there's something both subtle and dynamic about his physical acting, particularly his facial expressiveness. It's a shame the film requires so little of him beyond yelling and thumping.

Fast forward between 33 and 18,000 years (the movie is a little scatty on this point) and Kal (Henry Cavill), aka Clark, is a beardy, ridiculously ripped trawler fisherman who can't resist responding to distress signals, resulting in a powerful sequence on a burning oil rig, topped off with some notable Christian imagery (later he'll give himself over to his moral inferiors to save a people). Thankfully the film fills in the gaps through a series of beautifully-realised flashbacks that paint the young Clark as an outcast. Unsure of where he's come from, tormented by his terrifying abilities and local bullies fascinated by those perverse gifts, he's a brooding, unhappy child whose life is beset by uncertainty and dominated by that most underrated superpower: self-restraint. Beautifully-shot and perfectly cast - with Diane Lane and a superb Kevin Costner as his adoptive parents - these passages are uncommonly brilliant, bearing comparison with similarly affecting sequences in Batman Begins and the underrated Amazing Spider-Man. A perfect coda conjures a very pure, heightened form of Americana, recalling Field of Dreams and Terence Davies's 1995 pastiche of Southern cinema: The Neon Bible.

Nor does the film falter when it throws together Clark and Lois Lane (Amy Adams), who in a novel spin knows all about his abilities, almost from the off. While her first two scenes are remarkably poorly-written - Adams herself seems to be audibly cringing whilst spouting off about people "measuring dicks" - once the lovebirds are united, their relationship is convincing, appealing and affecting. Cavill is as good as Routh and Reeve in the part, while Adams has delivered on much of her indie promise since graduating to the big leagues. Kal, that troubled, haunted, lost soul has discovered his true identity - a solid scene with Crowe doing his Brando/ice crystals bit - and is sharpening his powers, courtesy of an exhilarating sequence in which he soars, swoops and pings over cities, deserts and savannahs, on the wings of Hans Zimmer's triumphant score. Snyder's handling of the emotional material is unexpectedly excellent, he has gathered the finest collection of dimple-chins ever put on screen, and now the action scenes are firing too. The oil rig rescue? This super set-piece? Is he about to run Bryan Singer close? No, he's about to slightly bollocks everything up, right from the moment Zod starts "terra forming".

When the final hour of the film finds time for quiet moments of character drama amidst the escalating mayhem, it scores big. And when it goes for Supes-savvy humour, as in the final scene at the Daily Planet, it's utterly charming. But when it romanticises the American military, lingers laboriously on its various uninspired technical creations, or serves up scene after scene after scene of CGI carnage - buildings crumbling (is this the first post-9/11 superhero movie?), glass flying everywhere, Supes and Zod crashing out the other side to a cacophony of yawns - the effect is deadening. I didn't allow my spirits to soar throughout the first 80 minutes so I could be clubbed over the head with disingenuous idiocy. The effect is akin to eating a delicious savoury meal, only to be interrupted halfway through by Zack Snyder shoving a whole six-pack of cupcakes into your mouth.

And that's a shame. Obviously. Because there's greatness at work here. It's just tossed aside by a director who doesn't credit his audience with the patience or intelligence to watch a whole film consisting of proper characterisation, vivid, incisive myth-making and grounded, weighty action sequences. And perhaps he's right, because that's what Singer gave us, and everyone said it was shit. (3)


So then I watched Superman Returns for the first time in four years, to see whether it deserved all that praise I've been slinging at it. And it did, sort of.

Superman Returns (Bryan Singer, 2006)
- It's baggier than I remembered, and Superman is a bit of a creepy stalker, but by Grabthar's hammer (sorry, wrong film), Singer's ambitious, effective pastiche of the Richard Donner originals is still the Man of Steel's best big screen outing to date.

It's 26 years after Richard Lester ruined Superman II - or five years after Superman left Earth, depending on how you look at it - and our hero (Brandon Routh) is back. In the interim, his nemesis Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) has got out of jail, his country has moved on, and so has the love of his life (Kate Bosworth). Lois also has a little boy, whose father may or may not be unfailingly pleasant newspaper executive Richard White (James Marsden), her new boyf. As Lex plans to branch out into real estate with the help of some stolen crystals, a piece of Kryptonite and a plan to kill billions, Supes decides to use his x-ray vision to spy on his ex, while getting reacquainted with the business of saving folks and lifting as many heavy things as he can find.

This strange, melancholy film blew me away when I first saw it in 2009 (late to the party as usual) and since then I've held it as my favourite superhero movie. A second viewing perhaps doesn't justify that billing - X2 and Spider-Man 2 are probably better, and Batman Begins just might be as well - but it is a very interesting, sometimes exhilarating, and ludicrously underrated film that boasts several fine set pieces, an eye-opening handling of superhero mythos and an exuberant, definitive villain in the shape of Spacey's petty, sarcastic and malevolent baldy.

Routh certainly looks the part - he's a virtual doppelganger for Reeve, aside from making Supes look like he's ageing in reverse - though I wasn't as impressed by his performance this time around. He lacks the dynamism that Cavill recently brought to the role and sometimes seems to be merely aping his predecessor's mannerisms, rather than putting his own spin on the character. Though this was presumably the way he was asked to play it, for the sake of the film's curious grasp of continuity (it's a sequel to Superman and Superman II, of course, but has flown all around the world to erase the third and fourth instalments), it can feel a little gimmicky, keeping us at arms' length. He also looks weirdly artificial and CGI-d in too many of his airborne sequences, more like the Superman character in a PS2 game of the movie than the real thing. The flashback sequence, showing his younger self leaping corn in a single bound, suffers from the same problem, playing more like a Pushing Daisies video game than a scene from a $200m movie.

As the feisty, Pulitzer Prize-winning heroine, Bosworth gets a raw deal, tending to be the first stick that anyone uses to beat the film with. While her filmography looks singularly unpromising and she isn't a very distinctive or bolshy Lois, lacking both the Torchy Blane factor that's surely central to the character and a certain facial expressiveness, as a sadder, wiser incarnation with the same idealistic, romantic centre, I think she mostly works.

Where the film really scores, acting-wise, is with Spacey's perforrmance. While I like Gene Hackman as an actor, he was a pathetic Luthor, neither funny nor scary. Spacey is both, revelling in the possibilities of the role. His weary put-downs to his moll (Parker Posey) are a joy, and the scene in which he boots Supes in the ribs is gloriously dark, though best of all is the scene in which he taunts Lois, caught adrift on his boat. "Say it," he encourages her, after sharing his dastardly scheme. "You're insane," she spits. "No, the other thing," he asks, coyly. "Superman won't let you-" "WRONG!" he roars back, his playfulness giving way to a snapshot of the darkest part of his soul. This whole passage, which begins with the faint sound of Bizet's Carmen eerily imploring Lois to investigate, takes in that confrontation between reporter and maniac, moves through a superb suspense sequence in which she tries to fax for her freedom beneath the strains of Heart and Soul, and climaxes with someone being killed by a massive fucking grand piano, is brilliant in just about every way.

It's followed by two similarly special set-pieces: the first, which kicks off with a euphoric costume change in a lift shaft, sees Supes racing through the city at breakneck speed, saving a falling construction worker, putting out fires with his breath and catching the Daily Planet's iron-wrought globe, which is about to kill everyone in the vicinity, including editor Perry White (Frank Langella). The second sees our hero brought low by Kryptonite - which is like Kryptonite to him - his fingers bleeding (an inspired touch), as a bunch of goons and their psychotic master simply kick the shit out of him. And then shiv him.

It's bravura filmmaking: mythmaking of the highest order and, in symbolic terms, perhaps an illustration of the incredible feats and crippling weaknesses that characterise anyone's life. It's certainly significant in terms of Singer's religious conception of the character, who possesses superhuman abilities and an intense sense of empathy, but is also hampered by the physical frailties of his form. The sequence in which his feeble body is beaten to a pulp, the vicious mockery of his former greatness ringing in his ears, has clear New Testament overtones, alluding to Christ's ordeal prior to his crucifixion.

The film ends in weirdly anti-climactic fashion. There's no final confrontation: Luthor is merely stranded on a desert island, his girlfriend having chucked his crystals out of a helicopter - a move that's perhaps intended to show how Supes' good-heartedness can convert anyone, but just feels like lazy writing - but I do absolutely love the scene in which Supes shoves a rock riddled with Kryptonite into space, his face fixed in agony. This is a Superman who suffers, who feels pain and suffering, loneliness and fear, and even if those emotions are expressed more through Singer's visual invention than Routh's middling performance, that stunning conception of the character still comes across.

It's a film full of iconic imagery - some of it drawn from the 1978 movie, other bits based on classic comic covers - and the greatest piece of all is that unforgettable reveal of Superman at the rock face, the weight of the world on his shoulders. He has never had to suffer like this before, unless you count appearing in Superman III and IV. And once more its basis is biblical, echoing the Stations of the Cross, in which Jesus - a former carpenter - is shown carrying his cross to his own crucifixion. Here Superman may be ultimately freeing himself of his burden, but he's still shouldering it, for the sake of humanity.

For those who like their superheroes straight-up super, performing simple feats of derring do on the streets of the city, Singer also throws in a handful of other treats. There's an invigorating little piece of action that sees Supes face down a bank robber who's wielding a minigun and a pistol: if you've ever wondered how hard his eyes are, you're about to find out. We're treated to a dazzling collection of clips supposedly culled from newscasts across the globe, complete with fuzzy footage of our hero plucking a falling man from in front of a skyscraper (echoes of 9/11, which was more directly recalled in Man of Steel). And then there is the runaway plane sequence, which even those who misguidedly hate Superman Returns will tell you is something of a wow. They're right. Though only about this. As Lois attends the launch of a new craft, a power outage caused by a certain dome-headed megalomaniac causes everything to go haywire. If only Superman could turn up, cast some of it into space and then lower the out-of-control remnants, full of journos, into a packed baseball stadium, prompting tumultuous applause. What's that? He can. Awesome.

One thing I really like about this sequence, aside from the fact that it's completely amazing, is how tiny and insignificant Superman looks, flitting around the outside of this gargantuan sardine can, tumbling to earth. There's a sense of peril here - and not just mild peril - that's enhanced by the frequent cuts to Lois getting slung about inside, that's too often missing from these set-pieces. Man of Steel was also at its best when it rooted its action sequences in realism. Realism, in this context, is of course a relative term, but there's a weight and basic believability to the runaway plane scene that renders it utterly thrilling. The flipside of this is that too much realism is as unwelcome intrusion: the most ordinary action sequence in the film, where Marsden rescues Superman in his plane, doesn't really belong in any movie, let alone this one, because it's really boring.

I have mixed feelings about the film's personal relationships. While the basic idea of making Superman a flawed hero who'll just fuck off for five years is a really fascinating one, rendering his return a public triumph but a personal struggle, the relationship with his possible son feels cliched and Hollywoodised. And while the scene in which he sees his mother (a brilliantly-cast Eva Marie Saint, basically the biggest treat that you can give someone who loves On the Waterfront and North by Northwest) is beautifully done, having him spy on Lois by looking through the walls of her house is a misstep: however affecting his alienation (incidentally the word that leaps out from Saint's Scrabble board upon his reappearance), it's undermined by the essential creepiness of the concept.

As a Brando fanboy, the use of archive footage and off-cuts from '78 - allowing him to posthumously reprise his performance as Superman's father, Jor-El - is a joy. Just his voice, with that cod-English accent, is enough to cause the hairs on my neck to stand on end. I do feel, though, that when his son recalls his words of wisdom, as he lies dying in the sea, Singer has essentially just swept up all the random Brando clips he could find and stitched them together into a slightly confusing audio montage.

Similarly, though the scene in which Supes plummets to ground, throwing up a dust cloud and a making a single dull thud, is wonderfully unsentimental, the medical climax is as uninteresting, unwelcome and coldly clinical as the one in E. T. The film's awkward comedy interludes at the Daily Planet, torn right from the Donner original, are also a mixed bag, though I do love the bit where Jimmy asks Clark how pissed off he thinks Superman will be about Lex Luthor walking free. "A lot," says Routh, with impeccable comic timing. "A lot," agrees Jimmy.

There are things wrong with Superman Returns: Routh and Bosworth are somewhat lacking in panache and verve, and a smattering of unnecessary scenes and redundant set-pieces stop the film from hanging together as well as it might. Its pacing is peculiar and its hero spends too long off screen - despite the majesty of that Lois-Luthor face-off. Viewed as a whole, it's as lumpy as a bag of Christmas presents, though it's also just as full of goodies.

This is a superior superhero movie, and a high water mark for the man in the red undies ("ovies"?): a homage that surpasses its influences - while lifted by the same soaring score - and a feat of epic, widescreen mythmaking, chock-full of iconic imagery, great ideas, and scenes of both weighted, breathless action and stomach-tightening suspense. I don't think it holds up on second viewing as well as it did on the first, but it's a hell of a lot better than its reputation suggests, and I can't wait for the sequel: roll on summer 2009! (3)


Other stuff:

I Give It A Year (Dan Mazer, 2013) - He's a Timothy Spall-faced loafer of no fixed character who dances like Beyonce and talks like Ricky Gervais (Rafe Spall). She's a fickle, faithless shrew who'll jeopardise her marriage for her job (Rose Byrne). And, nine months in, their marriage is on the rocks - perhaps because together they make the most dislikeable movie couple since the heady days of What's Your Number?. Or Downfall. One could argue that these characters are supposed to bring out the worst in one another, such is the film's proud status as a self-proclaimed "anti rom-com", and Spall's tender scenes with ex-girlfriend Anna Faris are more agreeable - she remains a talented actress with either the world's worst agent or a masochistic streak a mile wide. But Byrne's romance with a similarly smug American (Simon Baker) is utterly joyless, and I did spend most of the film hoping that they would all just fuck off (apart from Faris), which is a notably weak basis upon which to build a movie.

Kicking off where most rom-coms finish, and filmed in a sickly way that suggests the bastard offspring of Hollywood product and a Richard Curtis movie, I Give It a Year is smug, annoying and as unrealistic and unsatisfying as the movies it purports to spear, following its lumpy but lively first half - essentially just a string of comic set-pieces connected by the barest thread of story - with a second that's pointlessly plotty and both overly and overtly gloomy. Its rather horrible approach to marriage is typified by Minnie Driver's hideous supporting character, who revels in loathing her husband. The film toys with the idea of this being an affectionate quirk, then decides it would be funnier if it isn't. It isn't. And, curiously, her best line ("I'm not calling you a whore, but I also am") is in the trailer but not the film.

For all its problems, though, the film can be very funny, for which you can forgive it a little of the above. That's exclusively down to the bit players, and one in particular. Stephen Merchant has crafted a very specific persona in his film work - a garrulous idiot oblivious to the almost universal disapproval that greets his every pronouncement - and he's fantastic here. Whenever he's on screen as Spall's best man - mostly in the first 20 and last 10 minutes of the film - the movie starts firing, and its clumsy fusion of cliche, cynicism and bawdy and bad taste humour morphs into something rather charming. Recalling Nick Frost's heroics in Shaun of the Dead, he's a buffoon liked only by our nominal hero: a man not averse to public rapping, mistakenly chatting up children, or "accidentally" (the quote marks are his) walking in on his best friend's fiancee when she's getting changed. I'd say that it's even just about worth it for those moments and for a couple of moderately funny bits with Olivia Colman and Tim Key - when the former's marriage counsellor isn't drifting disastrously into painful predictability.

As a whole, it's not really any good, serving up characters who are too unpleasant to care about, even if they were believable enough for you to try, while its "anti rom-com" posturing is as wearisome as the leads' performances. But it isn't a total write-off, providing a handful of big laughs and another fine showcase for Merchant, who tends to be the best thing about every comedy in which he's criminally underused. (2)


Man in the Mirror (Maurice Elvey, 1936)
is a charming starring vehicle for the peerless Edward Everett Horton, America's greatest Golden Age character comic. In the 1930s, Horton - a familiar face in many of the decade's best Hollywood comedies - crossed the Atlantic to make two films for Maurice Elvey, the British craftsman-turned-hack whose career might have been oh-so-different if his silent epic, The Life Story of David Lloyd George, had been released before 1996, some time after the heyday of soundless cinema. Their first collaboration, Soldiers of the King, was a lifeless musical in which Horton was given unforgivably little to do opposite star Cicely Courtneidge. But this second go, filmed between the star's wildly successful films with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, is a vast improvement: an altogether slicker, more prestigious affair that makes considerable use of his considerable talents.

Horton was rangier than you might expect - check out his beautiful performance in George Cukor's Holiday for proof of his dramatic chops (he was the only actor to reprise his role from the 1930 adaptation) - but usually he traded on a very distinct persona: fretful, gently neurotic and sometimes agreeably petulant, equipped with a gallery of hilarious expressions and vocal tics, and the most outrageously protracted double-take in cinematic history. Here he's ideally cast as Jeremy Dilke, a henpecked husband who's used to being trampled on, both at home and at work. That changes when his roguish reflection (also Horton) steps out of a mirror and proceeds to teach him a few things about life: like how to succeed in business, get drunk, and seduce a married woman.

Attempting to build on a rather wonderful gimmick, the plotting is predictable - and not as clever and ambitious as it might be - though it is nicely tied up in the final scene. Part of the problem is that the film has some extended set pieces that are neither central to the story - except through subsequent contrivance - or very funny. Where it scores, though, is in letting Horton roam free. There was always a slightly wistful quality about his dominated characters in films like The Gay Divorcee and Top Hat: it wasn't that Horton didn't want to carouse - in brief moments of catharsis he "knocked knees" with Betty Grable (how incredibly Pre-Code) and accidentally confessed to an affair that took place at a zoo - it was more that he was terrified to. While the script is lacking in belly laughs, all of which come from the star's distinctive line-readings and facial contortions, Horton is exactly the right choice to play its hero, who's both transfixed by and extremely worried about his "other self", an uber-confident cad doing all the things he's always secretly wanted to. As the film makes clear - and this is unusually heavy for what appears to be a bit of froth - Horton's weary doormat has subjugated his desires to such an extent that his alter-ego is as much himself as what he has instead become; his true personality, and the one that will bring him what he wants now he has been set on the right path, lies somewhere in the middle.

The rest of the cast isn't bad. Genevieve Tobin - who played (oh that) Mitzi in Lubitsch's adultery musical One Hour with You - is attractive as Horton's wife, whose apparent impetuosity is just the result of her being sexually neglected, and statuesque stage star Ursula Jeans is quite good, except when hamming it up in her drunk scenes. There's also an early bit for Alastair Sim, playing a con man's interpreter, who makes the most of a rather slight, silly part. These sequences, typically bearing a pattern of "gobbledygook followed by-translation", quickly become tiresome (shades of Godard's Le Mepris in that respect), but are enlivened a little by Sim's booming voice and little smirks. Elvey once lamented that not a single one of his films was any good (his Lloyd George biopic hadn't seen the light of day at that stage), but it depends on what you mean by "good". This one doesn't break any new ground, but it does serve its purpose: providing bright entertainment in a faux-Hollywood vein.

Elvey handles the film's tricky visual conundrum very well (aside from one shot of a lousy double being shut out a room!) and it's a handsome production, full of stunning art deco sets that wouldn't have looked out of place in one of Horton's RKO films, lit by stylish wipes, and featuring a pair of attention-grabbing earrings (sported by Jeans), that twinkle tantalisingly as she tries to seduce Horton's meek married man. Interestingly, the sexual frankness in this adulterous relationship is something that Hollywood would really have struggled to get away with in 1936, a time when the excessive censorship crackdown had sent married couples to separate beds. Perhaps the film could have done more with its promising premise - it certainly could have provided some bigger laughs - but it's a pleasant, good-looking movie that makes close to the most of its very special guest. (3)

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