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Column Fri Jun 14 2013
Man of Steel
The point at which I knew that writer David S. Goyer, director Zack Snyder and producer Christopher Nolan were doing something very smart and very different with their version of Superman in Man of Steel was early on, when we're having the history (it's not really an origin, in the classic superhero sense) of Kal-El (who will eventually grow up to be Clark Kent when he reaches Earth) revealed to us in flashback. In this version of events, the men and women of Krypton have advanced so far that natural birth is a thing of the past, and every child is genetically engineered for certain functions — leaders, scientists, warriors, etc. Kal-El's father Jor-El (Russell Crowe) is a scientist, and he and his wife (Ayelet Zurer) decide that their son will have a choice in his destiny, which will not be fulfilled on Krypton, which is a dying planet. They have a natural birth and send their son across the universe to Earth, with the literal future of Krypton resting with him (I won't explain that further).
What's inherently intelligent about this setup is that Man of Steel's "villain" isn't a bad guy at all. General Zod (played with an intensity that seems branded to his face by Michael Shannon). Zod is a man whose entire existence is built around the idea of protecting the Kryptonian people, and when he learns that Kal-El's very being is the only thing standing in the way of him carrying out a function that is literally built into his DNA, he gets... frustrated and a little aggressive.
This aspect to the main storyline is just one of the reasons Man of Steel works so well, and probably will continue to do so upon repeated viewings. There are layers to this that other superhero films have attempted on a much smaller scale, and I'm including Nolan's Batman movies, although The Dark Knight is still a superior film for different reasons.
I also fell hard for the idea that Clark's father (Kevin Costner, who hasn't dug into a role or my heart in this way in quite some time) is so intent on keeping his son safe that he talks young Clark (played at 9 by Cooper Timberline and 13 by Dylan Sprayberry; both do wonderful jobs) into not using his remarkable powers, even if it means saving the lives of dozens of people. There's a powerful moment you may have seen already after Clark saves a school bus filled with his classmates where the boy asks his father, "Should I have let them die?" to with Coster replies, "Maybe." Coster not only sells the line, but he makes us understand the sentiment. Clark's mother (Diane Lane) is largely silent while her husband is still alive, but when we see her in the present, she seems more agreeable to Clark taking on the role of hero.
As an adult, Clark (Henry Cavill from Immortals and Showtime's "The Tudors") wanders the world picking up odd jobs as a laborer, but whenever he is forced to reveal his power to save someone, he immediately hightails it out of there for parts unknown. Aside from being ridiculously handsome, Cavill brings the right sense of torment and brooding to Clark. This is a man who is still haunted by his father's vision of his life of solitude. He also knows he's not of Earth, although I like that he clearly identifies himself as American.
Around the time that Zod and his team discover where Kal-El is residing, a smart veteran reporter named Lois Lane (Amy Adams) has caught wind of reports of someone out there exhibiting superhuman abilities in one town, then another, and she basically tracks him (or his mother) down using good, old-fashioned investigative tools. I love this version of Lois Lane. Not only is she a key player in the storyline (still taking orders, but doing so without being klutzy or screaming all the time) but she also makes for a worthy emotional partner for Superman, without stuff getting all mushy.
I can't believe I've made it this far without talking about Snyder's revelatory action sequences. I'm never seen fight scenes done this way, and when Superman and Zod go toe to toe on the streets and between the buildings of Metropolis (pretty much leveling the city — I can't even imagine the death toll), you can feel the screen vibrate with each impact. But as a result, watching the final third of Man of Steel might simply wear you out, but that's hardly a complaint. The filmmakers do a credible job blending vintage characteristics of the Superman legend with some wonderfully modern elements (the sequences on Krypton were so beautiful that I hated to leave them). The changes to the Superman canon aren't anything I think die-hard fans are going to complain about, and even the sometimes corny dialogue that Clark says is pretty charming (remember, he's really just a boy from Kansas at heart).
I know part of the reason this film was made in the first place is to set up a universe in which other characters from DC Comics can be added to the mix. Not that I'm not curious where these and other characters go from here, but I'm not here to judge Man of Steel as a jumping-off point. Simply as a stand-alone work, it's a glowing triumph that is perfectly paced, creatively designed, beautifully acted, and even has room for subtle elements to enhance its big-picture vision. Check out some nice supporting casting choices in Harry Lennix, Christopher Meloni and, of course, Laurence Fishburne as Perry White to see what I mean. You may find fault in small corners of this film, but the overall piece has so much going for it and is almost endlessly entertaining.
This Is the End
I'm not sure how to even review this film. I suppose one approach is to apply the same scale I use to evaluate all comedies: if it makes me laugh, it's good. And using that measure, This Is the End is actually great. But this film from writers and first-time directors Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (Superbad, Green Hornet) is going for so much more than just laughs that it astonished me with its pure level of ambition.
On the surface, this is the story of two old friends (Rogen and Jay Baruchel, who co-starred in Knocked Up) who have drifted apart and are making an attempt to bridge the distance that Rogen's fame has put between them. With every major actor in the film playing an alternate version of themselves (sometimes based on reality, sometimes on media perception and image), the lines between perception and reality are so fuzzy that you don't know if you're laughing because a biting joke is dead on or if it just feels that way. And in the end, does it really matter?
Rogen picks Baruchel up at the airport in LA and the two have a great afternoon of getting baked, playing video games, watching movies, eating junk food and just generally relaxing. But then Rogen drags Jay to a Hollywood party at the fictional home of James Franco, who seems to have a slightly obsessive connection with Rogen that includes paintings of him and his name on his walls. The party sequence alone warrants seeing the film more than once since the parade of famous faces that stroll in and out of frame is almost too much to absorb the first time through. I won't give away too many surprises, but if you've seen any trailers, commercials or even a poster, you know that the stand-out player at the party is Michael Cera, playing a coked-out, sex-crazed asshole who terrorizes everyone that comes within arm's reach of him.
Other guests at the party include Jonah Hill (whom everyone says the nicest guy in the world, but Jay still hates for reasons he can't even explain), Craig Robinson and Danny McBride (who isn't actually seen until the morning after because he partied too hard and passed out upstairs). During the party, Seth and Jay head out to grab a few things from a convenience store down the street when all hell breaks loose and blue lights come beaming down from the sky to lift certain people up into the sky, while those that remain on the ground are left to contend with the earth opening up, out-of-control fires, and horrifying creatures walking and flying around, most with giant, exposed penises. Nice touch, fellas. By the time the boys get back to Franco's house, most of the party guests have been killed and/or swallowed up by a giant sink hole that seems to lead to hell.
The rest of the film is essentially just the Rogen, Baruchel, Franco, Robinson, Hill and McBride trying to survive both the hell on earth outside and the equally terrifying egos inside the house. This Is the End is a wonderful combination of extremely juvenile behavior and humor mixed with some very smart and sometimes moving insight into Hollywood attitude and the childlike fragility of an actor's ego. But throw on top of all of that a very bloody, often scary story about the end of the world, and you've got a film that certainly doesn't skimp on the many ways it wishes to entertain its audience.
What's also interesting is that if some part of the film isn't working for you, it's fine because things are changing rapidly. For me, it was the put-upon nature of Baruchel's character that didn't work as well. He's as much of a part of the problem between him and Rogen as Rogen's new friends are, and I think that's by design. But frankly, that stuff wasn't nearly as interesting as the Apocalyptic nightmare going on. Still, it adds a layer of sentimentality (not meant in a bad way) that made me care the most about what happens to those two characters.
The way each character's flaws and insecurities rise to the surface is wonderful — from Hill's perpetual need to be loved to McBride's clinical inability not to masturbate, even under the most stressful of circumstances. Also, not spoiling anything, Emma Watson has a nice turn here as one of the few survivors of the party who returns to the house, only to get so creeped out by the guys' overly protective nature (they're all slightly in love with her) that she'd rather take her chances outside with the hell beasts.
This Is the End is one of the great, rare comedies that is always working for you, even if it's different elements working at different times. Sometimes the comedy takes a backseat (or at least rides shotgun) with the horror aspects, and when those aren't in the foreground, there's always the bizarre character studies happening in every corner of the house. To say that This Is the End of the best comedy of the year so far (which it is) isn't exactly high praise since the other comedies this year have been junk. But the bar has been elevated incredibly high by this really fun by this incredible, confidently made movie.
Rogen and Goldberg manage to avoid this feeling like some overly Hollywood insider mess and turn it into a knowing, human story about selfish guys trying to be better people to literally save their souls. I think you'll be surprised many aspects of the film — beginning with just how messed up things get at times (roving bands of leather-bound cannibals in a skeleton-adorned RV right out of Mad Max come to mind) and ending with a really sweet story of friendship. There's a lot of laugh at here, but more importantly, there's a lot to love about this film. And I can't wait to see it again just to see what I missed from laughing over joke after joke.
There are times while watching writer and subject Jeremy Scahill's documentary Dirty Wars that I thought, "This is simply too much to endure." And I wasn't referring to the sheer volume of information that is given to us in this film about a substantial and elaborate covert military force known as the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), an organization that is sanctioned by the president but essentially runs itself and justifies its existence by creating kill lists of enemies of America (including a few US citizens living abroad) and systematically kills the people on its every-growing list. Not surprisingly, JSOC's crowning achievement was the killing of Osama Bin Laden.
Scahill is a highly regarded investigative journalist for The Nation and author of a detailed book about the mercenary army known as Blackwater. The film begins as Scahill is sent to locations in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he kept hearing about these mysterious night raids that would result in the taking or killing of specific targets, but often would see many innocent civilians killed as well. Soon Scahill is traveling to places such unstable locations like Yemen and Somalia to find out more about these raids and who exactly carried them out. As much as his discoveries are jaw dropping, his skills as an investigator are remarkable and just as fascinating from a cinematic perspective.
The closer the Scahill gets to his truth, the more isolated and paranoid he begins to feel. He finds out his computer has been hacked, and he gets mysterious phone calls from potential confidential sources, who might also be trying to set him up. Directed by Rick Rowley, there are many shots of Scahill looking pensive, worried, tired, thoughtful, but based on what he goes through in this film, the looks seem earned. Even his narration takes on a surprisingly personal tone; he is in no way attempting to be unbiased about what he's discovering. It goes against everything he's grown up believing in what the United States and its military is supposed to do in its efforts to protect the country. What he's learning is challenging and destroying what he believes in freedom and justice, right and wrong. And it will demand that you do the same.
The film also covers the talkshow rounds that he made with this information and what he uncovered about Blackwater, including one where Jay Leno asks him, "How are you still alive?" A fair question, and one that the Scahill doesn't think about too much, lest he get even more paranoid than he already is. Dirty Wars is absolutely captivating, essential viewing, and it makes it clear that political parties and who's in charge of the country doesn't really matter when it comes to the war on terror. Is JSOC a necessary evil, or is it the cause of future evils to come? Killing innocents leads to hostility in other nations that in turn fuels the birth of new enemies. It's an ugly, dangerous cycle that seems never-ending, and it's the reason this film is both difficult to watch and so very important to understand. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
Dirty Wars subject and writer Jeremy Scahill will be at the Landmark Century Center Cinema for post-screening Q&As on Friday, June 14 at 7pm (which I'm told is sold out) & 9:45pm -- at both Friday appearances, Scahill will be joined by rapper and film advocate Lupe Fiasco -- and Saturday, June 15 at the 4:10, 7 & 9:45pm screenings.
I'm kind of a sucker for documentaries about food, chefs, anything having to do with higher-end restaurants, probably because I know I'll never have the chance to truly experience these things and places myself to any large degree. But even I was impressed and caught up in the drama of a small group of sommeliers studying for the ultimate challenge of acquiring the knowledge and skills it takes to become a certified Court of Master Sommelier. The exam to get to this level is only given once a year, and only a small number of the 50 or so who attempt the combination taste test, theory and service exam actually are tapped to become members of this elite group, who almost immediately go on to get incredible jobs in the service or wine industry.
But the real thrill of the documentary Somm isn't the test (although that's a close second). What absolutely drew me in was the obsessional lengths these (mostly) men went through to memorize every aspect of wine making imaginable. And to watch one of these "somms" go through a tasting is unforgettable, especially when they get it right in makeshift competitions among their peers. Partying with these guys is a whole other adventure.
Directed by Jason Wise, Somm also dives into the personal lives of these contenders, who openly discuss (as do their significant others) the strain that preparing for the Master Exam has on their lives and relationships. Both parties look forward to the sommelier passing so that the piles of flashcards and hours of studying per day will go away. I'll admit, I was surprised who out of the group Wise follows is earns their title and who doesn't this time around. I won't say why because the drama is so wonderfully executed, I wouldn't want to ruin it. Cameras are not allowed in the actual exams, but we get to hear the sommeliers compare notes, especially on the wine tasting results, and it's clear immediately that some in the group got many wrong.
With nearly unlimited access to this process, great interviews with longtime Master sommeliers, and a glimpse of the mindset it takes to get to this level of perfection, Somm is a fun and tense experience that will make you want to line up the wine and start downing glasses just to relieve the stress. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.
As an added bonus at certain screenings from Friday through Tuesday, the beverage director of City Winery and even a few of Master Sommeliers will host various screenings of Somm, with wine being served and even some blind taste testing happening at certain screenings. Go to the Music Box Theatre's website for times and details on all of the special screenings.
One of the rarest of all issue-driven documentaries are ones in which people who were once on one side of a hotly contested issue switch over to the other side and openly admit it. And yet in the truly thought-provoking film Pandora's Promise, there are several such educated environmental experts, all of whom are quite nervous about not just global warming but the painfully slow pace America is going to slow emissions to the point where it might actually make an impact. But these folks aren't changing their minds about global warming; they're changing it on the role nuclear power generation will play in slowing a climate meltdown.
Gathering a group of one-time anti-nuclear activists, director Robert Stone has, as the title suggests, opened a can of worms on the topic of this clean, non-CO2-emitting power source that will do a job that wind- and solar-driven energy simply can't do enough to effectively end the country's use of coal and natural gas. And as the world sees more and more third-world nations rise up to join the rest of us as car-driving, energy-using locations, the global warming issue is only going to get worse, according to experts.
Pandora's Promise examines the process that each activist and expert went through from anti-nuclear to pro-nuclear thinking. People like Michael Shellenberger, Gwyneth Cravens, Mark Lynas and Richard Rhodes clearly are as stunned about their turnaround as those who followed them still are, in many cases. But after doing extensive research on the true, measurable, well researched effects of nuclear disasters recently in Japan, as well as legendary ones at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, they have come to the determination that the aftereffects weren't nearly as terrible as they once believed, and the risk is worth it when put next to the much worse impact if nuclear isn't used.
Those profiled understand that nuclear power has always had an unfair link to atomic weapons, but one of the biggest eye openers in the film is that a huge percentage of the nuclear material that is used currently in US power plants comes from dismantled Russian nuclear weapons that these companies purchased, to the point where the former Soviet Union has no such weapons left. These long-feared devices are lighting our homes with no detriment to the environment. If ever there was a film and subject worthy of serious, fact-driven discussion, it is Pandora's Promise, which backs up its controversial ideas with facts, which don't hold as much stock in the world as they once did, but now is as good a time as any to change that. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.