Monthly Archives: June 2013

Man of Steel (2013)

Man of steel

My main bugbear with Man of Steel is not, in fact, the endless, CGI-ridden, shakily edited action scenes. I can forgive the high tally of sky-scrapers that Zod gets thrown into. The Superman character was, after all, first introduced to the public in DC’s Action Comics. What would people rather see than action: two-and-a-half hours of Kal-El crying into Lois Lane’s scented tissues? No, the thing that bothered me the most was the complete lack of chemistry between, arguably, the hottest and sweetest couple in superhero history (please don’t start up a debate with me on this one – I don’t read that many comics and you’ll probably win). Watching Henry Cavill and Amy Adams on screen was a lacklustre affair to say the least, one that left me cold and wondering where exactly their kisses came from (the script, too obviously). Don’t get me wrong, I had no qualms with the actors themselves. Cavill did a fine job, suitably furrowing his brow 24/7 and letting his plump lips spill lines such as… oh, wait, I don’t remember any of his lines, forget that. And Amy Adams, who I love, did her best with what she was given. There was just simply no spark between them.

I was so incredibly excited for Man of Steel, and to say I left the cinema feeling disappointed is perhaps too strong a reaction. I expected a lot of what I saw (Kryptonians, Kansas etc.), and was particularly impressed with the opening scenes on Krypton (save some shoddy special effects) where Russell Crowe struts around in a rusty-coloured cape speaking in a delightfully mellow English-accent whilst doing his best to save his planet, his son, and his wife (played by the beautiful Ayelet Zurer, a.k.a Nigella-Lawson-look-a-like-of-the-year). I had goosebumps at one point, and for a split-second I was hopeful that I would be truly blown away by this film. Alas, as soon as we reached Earth and the narrative started to go all higgledy-piggledy, I was taken out of the moment and my doubts started to form. I believe that had the audience been treated to Kal-El/Superman/Clark Kent’s childhood first, and been allowed to connect more wholly and intimately with the character and his Earth-father, rather than witness flash-back memories, then there wouldn’t be so many complaints as to the film’s lack of certainty and direction, which is something that I felt strongly.

I personally have no issues with the redesign of Superman’s costume and the overall muted colour palette. This is partly to do with the fact I don’t feel loyal to the character (I’m a Detective Comics girl myself), and also that I am enjoying the current trend of “darkening” superheroes and their back-stories. Put his pants back underneath his trousers, please, by all means. However, I did find myself missing some of the humor of previous adaptations. I think I only laughed once when the soldier says that she thinks Superman is “hot”, and even then it was only a light chuckle, partly in reaction to the rest of the audience laughing. The “Lois Lane tries to say that word but gets interrupted by audio feedback” joke wasn’t funny as I had seen it a million times in the trailers, and to be honest, they shouldn’t have relied on that moment alone to provide the “light entertainment side” to this oh-so-deadly-serious reboot.

The thing (or person) who took this rating from three to three-and-a-half was Michael Shanon as General Zod. Scrumptiously unhinged and highly strung, his military leader-turned-rebel was a genuine highlight. Screaming his way through his lines with the veins popping out of his neck and forehead, I was hooked whenever he was on screen, and had the strongest reaction emotionally to his speech towards the end when he talks of his “soul” (you’ll know what I mean if you’ve seen it – I don’t want to give too much away). As for the very last moment we see him (again, I’m avoiding spoilers)… I can’t even begin to explain how I felt. It was a brave move, but one that I can confidently say paid off extremely well, as it not only added a layer of interesting depth and anxiety to the Superman character, but also injected a sudden, cold and shocking reality into an otherwise blockbuster-y world. I can see the aftereffects of this particular moment being played out absorbingly in later movies. Fingers crossed.

I don’t pretend to be an expert on superheroes, but I do enjoy reading them, researching them and watching them. Superman is undoubtedly a symbol of hope and sacrifice (the film quite transparently makes the connection between him and Christ). He is the bullet-proof, flying man in the sky, come from another world to save mankind from greed and corruption. Far from the grim, human reality and money of Batman, Superman is a soul detached from business and an “alien” in more ways than one, lit up and shining as a beacon to those in despair. Dirty the bright yellow S, smooth that spit curl back, and you’re sure to come up against some opposition. Is there any point in making Superman gritty? The answer is yes, if it’s done fantastically: if the American-dream symbolism is handled with a contemporary confidence and merged seamlessly with uncertainty and hard-times. Unfortunately, Zack Snyder’s vision is one where only the aesthetics are darkened to perfection.

FINAL VERDICT: ★ ★ ★ 1/2

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Bringing Out the Dead (1999)

Bringing Out the Dead

Repetition, depression, desperation, thirst. Those are the key motifs in Martin Scorsese’s lesser known picture Bringing Out the Dead, starring none other than Nicolas Cage (who is brilliant) as Frank: an alcoholic, insomniac ambulance paramedic. Haunted by the ghosts of those he failed to save, Frank spends most of his time staring vacantly out of his vehicle’s windows onto the streets of Manhattan, observing the many vagrants and prostitutes who populate the street corners like specters. Being called out to clean up the drunken and delusional homeless night after night, Frank feels the exhausting strain of having to experience the same disappointment on every shift. He desperately desires to be the hero, to save a life, to give life, to prolong life. And yet what he comes to realise through his numerous encounters with work partners (played by dynamic trio John Goodman, Ving Rhames and Tom Sizemore), medical staff, patients and friends, is that death is not something to be hysterically and dramatically avoided. It is natural – inevitable – and Frank’s final, peaceful encounter with it is what finally releases him from the mental prison he has built himself.

Bringing Out the Dead is a feast for the ears as well as the eyes, as inventive and unconventional shots are matched with a kick-ass soundtrack that includes the likes of The Clash, Van Morrison, R.E.M, The Who, and UB40. An eclectic assortment of songs send shock-waves through otherwise introspective moments, such as the ambulance’s long drives down city roads where the street-lights blur at the sides of the screen, and reflections flicker on the windshield. An overdose of crazy illumination causes the mind to spin as you watch Frank becoming more and more overwhelmed by the nocturnal life he leads, living only by the glare of artificial light glimmering red, white, yellow and blue. Visually, the film is a beautiful headache, teasing you with calm only to then startle you with more fluorescent flashes.

I bought this film not knowing anything about its story, and I was shocked by how much it affected me. Initially, I wanted to give it three-and-a-half stars as I felt it was impactful but morbid, and so not easy to revisit, but thinking on it I have decided that it’s worth a solid four, as although it’s a hard watch, it’s a worthy one. A little long at just over (a minute over) two hours, the film can sometimes feel too intense, but that’s the point – as a viewer you’re meant to feel the weight and strain of Frank’s responsibilities and anxieties, and in a sense be on the graveyard shift with him. By the end you desire the daylight and a good sleep as much as he does.

FINAL VERDICT: ★ ★ ★ ★

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)

ghost dog

Balance between stark opposites is key in this simple but surreal story of identity and tradition. Forest Whitaker is enthralling and enigmatic as Ghost Dog, an African American hitman who methodically follows the code of the Samurai and works for the local mafia, but who finds himself hunted by those he serves after a hit goes awry. Surrounded by opposing cultures and customs, he recites quotes from Hagakure (an ancient guide for the Samurai warrior) in an attempt to maintain equilibrium in the face of an ever-changing world. One such quote begins: “It is bad when one thing becomes two”, and as the narrative progresses it becomes obvious that what is essential for our titular character is the unity of contraries. Gangster and samurai, hitman and friend: Ghost Dog is a true shape-shifter, a phantom in the city who embodies the antithetical East and West, but who achieves transcendence from social categorisation through adherence to an ancient “way” of life.

Two dying traditions are pitted against each other in the form of the ebbing mafia and the age-old Samurai code. Jarmusch cleverly sets his archaic characters against a backdrop of modern hip-hop, which works to highlight the irony of their individual causes. This is especially so in the case of the mafia bosses who are represented by a trio of idiosyncratic men stuck in the glory days of organised crime. Watching them awkwardly discuss rappers whilst seated at their small, Italian-style café table hidden at the back of a Chinese takeaway is a moment of biting comedy which reveals their reluctance to adapt. They would do well to take heed of one of the chosen passages from Hagakure: “although one would like to change today’s world back to the spirit of one hundred years or more ago, it cannot be done.” Ghost Dog, on the other hand, does not wish to change the world back. Instead he recovers an ancient spirituality and brings it into the present day, thus creating for himself a hybrid and honourable identity.

One of my favourite things about Jarmusch’s films is that they give you time to think. Extended, silent drives are not just throwaway breaks, but moments for concentrated reflection. As you read the quiet contemplation on the character’s face on screen, and muse as to what they are thinking, you in turn are drawn into your own mind and into thoughts that are informed by the images in front of you: an empty road at night may prompt meditations on life, wandering and ambition. The line between reality and dreams is also blurred through odd scenes such as Ghost Dog encountering the hunters with the dead bear on the road, and the repeated shots of children’s cartoons which eerily echo/foreshadow the actions of the main character. Heavily symbolic, the film’s images all wait patiently to be interpreted and connected to the wider themes of the story. The three main animals that make an appearance, for example, can each be related to an aspect of Ghost Dog’s personality: the pigeon is his ability to overcome situations and adapt, the dog is a representation of his obedience and loyalty, and the dead bear (of which “there’s not that many left”) is symbolic of his threatened and dying Samurai way.

I’ve never seen Le Samourai, and so I can’t talk about the references to the 60s film unfortunately (I hope to change this soon), but it’s obvious that Ghost Dog is loaded with a rich intertextuality. Much like the hip-hop of the soundtrack, Jarmusch’s film samples and then adapts a range of other works, and rather than view this as a weakness, I choose to view it as a sign of great reverence and inspired creativity. If you were to attempt to fit this into a genre, it would have to be something like: “gangster, samourai, western”. It is this ingenious jumble of allusions and types which makes the film such a profound and enjoyable oddity.

In the (slightly altered) words of Louise Vargo:

It’s a really good film. You should see it.

FINAL VERDICT: ★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2