Wednesday, June 19, 2013

REVIEW: Man of Steel (2013)

REVIEW:  Man of Steel (2013) ***

"Man of Steel" is a mixture of the old and the new. Superman was born on Krypton as Kal-El to Jor-El and Lara, and he's still sent to safety on Earth when his planet was doomed to destruction. Yet, from the very first moments, we see that this is not exactly the same story we saw unfold in the classic 1978 adaptation. Krypton is not an ice planet melted by the sun, but rather a technologically advanced world undone by forces within.

There are also changes to Kal-El's childhood. He was born naturally in a world where whole generations are genetically engineered in pods. He grows up on Earth as an outsider, a slight alteration from his original screen persona. In the original Christopher Reeve film, he also held back his true identity for the sake of his family, but here we are given more specific experiences that show why it would be harmful if others know about his abilities. This is best exemplified in a scene involving a sinking bus filled with children and the reaction to Kal-El's, now Clark Kent's, efforts to help.

As he becomes a man, Clark Kent leaves a trail of anonymous helpful deeds that arouse the interest of a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist by the name of Lois Lane. By the time she discovers his identity, a new enemy has arrived in the form of Jor-El's Kryptonian nemesis General Zod.
Zod was a militant leader who staged a coup on their native planet, but was captured and sentenced to the Phantom Zone. He has now returned to take over and rebuild Krypton on Earth. Of course, Clark Kent decides he cannot let this happen and fights back on behalf of the people while trying to gain their trust at the same time.

Zack Snyder's "Man of Steel" works very well as a summer blockbuster, and presents an acceptable vision of the Superman legend as well. It includes a more futuristic, more action-packed and more robust story than the middling "Superman Returns." The cast is well-chosen, with a particular improvement being Amy Adams as Lois Lane. I never quite bought Kate Bosworth in the role, but Adams brings conviction as a tough reporter looking to get the story of the century. Kevin Costner and Diane Lane bring warmth and wisdom as our hero's adoptive parents Jonathan and Martha Kent. Russell Crowe is properly authoritative as Jor-El. Laurence Fishbourne is the wise-but-no-nonsense editor Perry White. And Michael Shannon brings his trademark intensity to the main villain General Zod. Then of course, there is Henry Cavill, who does a credible job in the title role. He is sturdy and powerful in right moments, while concerned and curious in others.

What the film lacks is more charm and humor. I'm not suggesting that we need Richard Pryor, or an equivalent comedian of today, to provide comic relief. Yet this film is mostly concerned with the action set-pieces, leaving less room for the more human moments to shine through. One of the reasons the first two Christoper Reeve Superman movies have remained so popular is their focus on the characters' interactions.

We do sense the emotional ties in this film, but not as much of the charismatic nature of the Man of Steel. I realize that this is a deliberate choice on the part of the film makers. They wanted to get away from the Richard Donner/Richard Lester aesthetic as much as possible, but a bit more lightheartedness couldn't hurt. We need more moments and lines. Remember Lois' interview with Superman on the balcony in the original? Or Terence Stamp's memorable line "Kneel before Zod!" in the second movie? There are precious few of those moments in "Man of Steel," and yet it is entertaining on its own terms. Because it does enough, and just enough, I will look forward to the sequel.

Friday, June 7, 2013

FLASHBACK REVIEW: Superman Returns (2006)

FLASHBACK REVIEW:  Superman Returns (2006) ***

After years of on again, off again news of Warner Brothers trying to bring Superman back to the big screen, Brandon Routh was cast in the title role. Bryan Singer ("Jack the Giant Slayer," "X-Men," "The Usual Suspects") came in to direct. It's a difficult film to define in terms of its own entertainment value.

The plot concerns Superman's return (hence the title) after a five year absence to explore the possibility of the existence of Krypton remnants in space. This allows Lex Luthor to gain prominence again, and for Lois Lane to become resentful of his having abandoned her. Meanwhile, Luthor has developed a new plan to combat his arch -enemy and make him powerful. It all involves Kryptonite and real estate.

The plot elements of the film were deemed fairly dark (Superman is quite somber through a good deal of the film) and, to some, dull at the time of release. However, many reviews were actually positive and the film went on to gross nearly $400 million worldwide. Due to a combination of adherence to the film's connections, namely its indulgence of elements prominent in the Christopher Reeve films of the 1980's, some fans and critics felt that the film struggled to find its own reason for being. On the other hand, the visual effects, and individual performances were praised. Routh was seen as an earnest Superman and Spacey received good notices for his darker version of the Lex Luthor character. (Actually, his Luthor would have fit in fairly well with a continuation of the "Smallville" universe, had they hired Tom Welling in the lead role).

Overall, the film failed to win over enough fans, and the studio decided to scrap plans for a direct sequel starring Routh. A new reboot, directed by Zack Snyder ("300," "Watchmen"), starring Henry Cavill and featuring an all-star cast is to be released next week.

CLASSIC FILM REVIEW: Supergirl (1984)

CLASSIC FILM REVIEW:  Supergirl (1984) **½

"Supergirl" is something of a curiosity. It is neither as bad as its reputation would have you believe, nor as good as it could have been under the right circumstances.

Kara is a young woman from Krypton, in a place called the Argo City. When a special item that holds the power to the city is sent out into space accidentally, she follows it to Earth to save the city. Once there, she finds she has powers and begins a dual identity as Supergirl and Linda Lee. She discovers that she isn't alone in wanting the item she came for. A witch (an over-the-top Faye Dunaway) decides she can use it to gain great power. There's also a romantic subplot and some references to Superman.

By far the best thing about the film is Helen Slater's portrayal of the title character. She has an affecting, likable screen presence and handles the heroics pretty well. Aside from that, some of the scenes involving Faye Dunaway's witch and her sidekick (Brenda Vaccaro) are fun and Jerry Goldsmith provides a suitable music score.

The film was released in 1984, after the disappointing "Superman III" had failed the previous year. Christopher Reeve was actually supposed to have a cameo in this film, but he dropped out before filming. Who knows what impact his appearance would have had on the success of the film? There were also extensive cuts to the film when it was shown in the United States. Apparently many scenes were restored for a Director's Cut DVD a few years ago. As far as superhero movies go, this one is not terrible but the story was a bit goofy and doesn't make good use of its one hold-over from the Reeve series. That would be Marc McClure as Jimmy Olsen, who seems to be in the movie just to serve as a link to the more successful "Superman" features. In a way it is too bad that "Supergirl"doesn't quite work, because it's easy to picture Helen Slater reprising the role in a sequel or two with better stories.