Monthly Archives: November 2013

movie review of MAN OF STEEL

Man-of-Steel-Henry-CavillI recommend Man of Steel if you’re already a Superman fan who will buy anything with a shiny red S stamped onto it or if you regard Michael Bay’s Transformer movies as groundbreaking marvels of cinematic artistry.

Remember that scene in the first Pirates of the Caribbean in which both Jack Sparrow and Barbossa have attained cursed-gold immortality?  They keep fighting conventionally, but Barbossa acknowledges the ironic futility of the situation saying, “So what now, Jack Sparrow? Are we to be two immortals locked in an epic battle until Judgement Day and trumpets sound?” and Sparrow quips, “Or you could surrender.”

Man of Steel is basically that Pirates of the Caribbean scene extended into two and a half hours, except take out the clever writing and self-awareness and replace them with explosions and collapsing buildings.

On the advanced alien world of Krypton, the head scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) warns his superiors that Kryptonians have ravaged their planet to the point that it is literally about to collapse.  But before anybody can do anything, General Zod (Michael Shannon) attempts a coup because he blames the council for ruining the planet.  In his short-sighted insistence on violence, Zod prevents any solution to the problem, and Jor-El must launch his newborn son Kal-El to Earth.

From there, the movie proceeds in an interesting chronological shuffle that follows Kal-El as he spends his time learning the secret of his alien origins, facing down the evil General Zod and his cronies who have come to terraform Earth into a new Krypton, and finding as many opportunities as possible to stand heroically backlit by sunlight or fire.  There’s also a sparkless romance subplot shoveled in there somewhere.

On the positive side, the movie is gorgeous.  It really is.  The special effects are some of the best I’ve ever seen, and the costumes and sets showcase attention to detail and artistic flair.  The culture and history of Krypton are carved into cold, sculpted architecture and armor plating, and the Kryptonian ball-bearing-array render system is downright entrancing.

But apparently the producers threw so much of the budget into the visuals that they could only afford to hire a sophomore writing student from the local community college to do the script.  A sophomore writing student who hasn’t yet met his basic math requirements.


The result is that the movie flashes from surprisingly potent images–like a shot of child Clark Kent wearing a cape of discarded laundry as he plays with his dog–to hollow dialogue in which characters exchange platitudes and sweeping observations in place of anything close to human interaction.  There’s no real characters here; just simplistic themes butting heads.

But to make matters worse, the movie can’t seem to figure out what it’s even trying to say thematically.

In the very first scene, Jor-El is cast on the side of Nature as he and his wife deliver the first naturally born Kryptonian child in hundreds of years.  Sans anesthesia, even.  Then, as war breaks out and hulking metal ships blast each other out of the sky, Jor-El soars through the chaos on a living steed, further strengthening his alignment with all things natural and contrasting him with the artificiality of Krypton’s Brave New World society of infant growth chambers and social predestination.  But later on, the Zod’s Dark Action Girl lieutenant (the one who fights like a video game character) repeatedly aligns herself with evolution–perhaps the ultimate Natural process.  This is both thematically and factually jarring, as Dark Action Girl isn’t the product of evolution at all.  She’s the genetically specialized offspring of a stagnant culture that embraced artificiality, control, and uniformity over the messy diversity of natural evolution.

It’s a film that plays to all the heavy, easy beats–right down to Russell Crowe intoning with a fatherly baritone, “You can save them all,” as Henry Cavill drifts backwards with his arms spread, nailed to an invisible cross and glowing with a solar halo.  A choir sings a few bars before our savior turns and rockets Earthbound.

If thematic complaints feel like splitting hairs to you, let’s look at the other silliness going on in this movie.

Hey, super advanced alien world rulers: next time you want to imprison violent, treasonous radicals by encasing them in carbonite, packing them into space dildos, and launching them into the abyss wait out eternity, maybe skip the part where you then house the space dildos in a fully functional and very expensive-looking mothership capable of holding an entire planet hostage.  Just a thought.

Of course, while we’re at it, it might have been a good idea not to abandon that planetary colonialism idea so quickly. You know, since non-renewable resources are kind of… not renewable. I guess hindsight is 20/20.

But ancient alien races aren’t the only ones coming up with hairbrained ideas.  Humans are just as busy.  At one point, the plan to take down the evil alien mothership hovering over New York is to turn it into a black hole.  Yes, a black hole.  Perhaps the most destructive force in the universe, capable of devouring stars and holding whole galaxies in sway.  Let’s make one inside our own atmosphere. I guess we’re just supposed to assume that the black hole will disappear once it’s done sucking down all the baddies and won’t, you know, spaghettify planet Earth before crushing it into singular oblivion.  Nobody even raises their hand and says, “But sir, a black hole?  Isn’t that kind of throwing out the baby with the bathwater… into a meat grinder?”

So logic takes a hike for Kryptonians and Humans alike, but it also seems like Science can’t figure out what it’s doing either.


Superman is Superman because, Jor-El says, the young star’s radiation strengthens his bones and muscles as he grows.  Except, later on, it’s apparently Earth’s atmosphere, and the effects are instantly reversed by breathing Kryptonian air.  Even though Superman flies around in outer space–well outside of Earth’s atmosphere–with no issue.  But all of Zor’s minions seem just as invincible as Superman, even though they’re breathing Kryptonian air.  I guess they have super armor?  That armor wasn’t so super for Jor-El against that steak knife Zod had, but maybe that was old super armor that didn’t have some of the more advanced armor perks. Like anti-silverware tech.  And later on, Zor gets all of Superman’s abilities in a few seconds of Earth air exposure, so I guess Superman didn’t have to absorb all that radiation for so long after all.  Goddamn it, Jor-El, what kind of a scientist are you?

So everybody is invincible.  Except the human soldiers, of course,  who never figure out that shooting these guys does absolutely nothing.  But even though all the aliens are invincible, they keep fighting each other.  Even though it does nothing.  For hours.  Through crowded streets and busy offices, leaving dismembered bodies and charred, skeletal buildings in their path.  Nothing is at stake in the drawn-out fight sequences because we don’t know any of the characters’ limitations or weaknesses–if they have any.

The motivation of the main characters is to fight because they must fight because this is an action movie.  The motivation of the secondary characters is to not die. Tertiary characters have the survival skills of aphids and will stand their ground firing a machine gun into a hulking alien as it marches toward them, every bullet bouncing off like so many packing peanuts.

To say this Superman plays fast and loose with human life is an understatement.  If a person is held at gunpoint right in front of him, sure, he’ll do anything to bat the gun out of the assailant’s hand.  Unfortunately, he might just use a denizen-packed skyscraper as the bat.  I think it’s safe to say that Kal-El’s collateral death count in this movie is well into the hundred thousands as he blindly crashes through buildings and gas stations, his eyes soullessly locked on his equally immortal opponent, bystanders-be-damned.

And you might think that Krypton atmosphere is the Achilles heel of the situation, like the gold coins in Pirates of the Carribean. You’d be wrong.  It could have been, but, [spoilers] it’s not.  At some point, Superman just gets bored fighting and snaps some previously-indestructible necks without tapping into any preexisting weaknesses.

Yeah, that really happens.  No plot setup necessary. He doesn’t even go super saiyan to do it. Just, pop.

Some may complain that I’m taking this too seriously, breaking down themes and lazy in-universe science in a superhero movie.  That it’s “just” a superhero movie, after all.

First of all, that’s a bullshit position to take.  It implies the idea that you should turn off your brain when you go into a movie like this and just take it, regardless of quality.  Just let the spectacle tingle the most superficial nerve endings and maybe down a gram of soma  to ease the experience.  Fuck that, dude.

Second, plot holes and bad science are completely acceptable in a movie that has other things going on in it.  In a well-crafted piece of fiction, simple plot holes ruin the experience only for the most jaded pedant.  If there are characters and we’re involved in their situation, we’re willing to let a lot slide.  After all, the main role research and continuity play in creating fiction is to create a firm enough ground that we’re able to recognize the characters as people who experience things in a similar way that we experience things.  “Oh look, these guys have to deal with gravity too.  I can relate to that.”

Man of Steel isn’t a bad movie because it is a spectacle.  It’s a bad movie because it’s only a spectacle.

Let me say this. Iron Man was “just” a superhero movie, but Iron Man had humor, emotional depth, well-wrought characters, spry dialogue, and a firmly constructed plot.  Zack Snyder’s Watchmen adaptation rocked too, as did Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins.  This movie felt more like a Michael Bay production than something from these guys.

Man of Steel only has special effects going for it, and if that’s enough for you… well… it shouldn’t be enough for you.

movie review of THE PURGE


I can confidently recommend The Purge to anyone who has consumed a half-liter of cheap vodka within the last hour and who hasn’t seen a science fiction or suspense movie since 1983.

I happened to see it with only two shots of watered down Jack Daniel’s in my bloodstream, and that wasn’t near enough to make the experience interesting.

To its credit, The Purge probably boasts the most  intriguing movie premise rolled out by Hollywood in the past  half-decade.  The year is 2022, and crime, poverty, and homelessness are all rocking utopian lows.  However, as mandated by the Sci-Fi Price of Universal Happiness clause, these boons come at a dark cost.  No, it’s not a lottery for human sacrifice.  No, it’s not teenagers sentenced en masse to a fatal battle royale.  No, it’s not even a single abject child locked in a box of eternal misery.

No, in the dark  future of The Purge, all laws and legal consequences are suspended for one day from 7pm to 7am.  Even murder is allowed–and even encouraged–by the United States government.

The Purge introduces us to a society that embraces the secret, destructive inclinations of humanity rather than push them down.  “Purge Day” is a means to vent aggression and violence in a socially acceptable way.  What makes the premise interesting is that we all recognize this unthinkable monster lurking somewhere beneath the surface.  We gravitate to the idea of the “beast within,” a buzzword even used in The Purge’s friendly PSA announcements.

It’s a scenario ripe for  delving the conflicted and suppressed psychology of the everyman, or for making biting political observations about our association between legality and morality, or even to study the long-term effects living in such a pristine yet openly brutal society would have on a sensitive and aware human being.

You could make ten brilliant movies from The Purge’s core concept, but instead, director James DeMonaco decides to do none of these things and instead revisit the well-trod territory of “crazy psychopaths invade a home”. (The Strangers anyone?)

"That's a bold strategy, Cotton."
“That’s a bold strategy, Cotton.”

We know what we’re in for pretty much right away.  Ethan Hawke plays “Ethan Hawke”, an executive for a company that sells security systems (but which has apparently never heard of “safe rooms”) and which has done pretty well for itself due to the “New Founding Fathers'” morally-questionable system for controlling society.  Ethan Hawke and his wife Cersei Lannister have two kids and a big house and live in a neighborhood that has historically remained untouched by the Purge.

When there’s a long, musicless shot of Cersei reaching into the fridge for something that couldn’t possibly be plot-related, you can almost hear the audience counting down to the obligatory false-startle jump scene.  You know the one.  Our character closes a door or looks up in a mirror after washing her face or closing the medicine cabinet and, even though they have no reason to be on edge, HOLY STAB OF VIOLINS BATMAN, SOMEONE IS STANDING RIGHT THERE! Oh, but it’s just you, Other Character We Know.

It’s a cheap, easy way to maintain tension in the introductory first act.  But the cheap and easy doesn’t stop there, no sir.

The home invaders wear masks for no real reason except to look scary on promotional material.  Oh, and to dehumanize them so we feel less bad when Ethan Hawke starts blowing them away with a shotgun.  Their ringleader is a nameless prep school man-child with a soulless, plasticine grin who is channeling the sociopathic soul of Patrick Bateman.  When Ethan Hawke’s son, Baby Gerard Way, grants a homeless token black man sanctuary, Patrick Bateman and his gang of Bioshock splicer baddies demand the “filthy swine” be released to them for purging, or else they’re coming in after him.

From there, it pretty much proceeds how you think it will .  There’s a late-game twist (which sort of cuts the wings off our otherwise interesting villain), but you’ll know exactly what it is by the third scene if you’re paying any kind of attention.

That’s really The Purge’s main problem.  It plays too much by the books.  It pretends to be brutal and unexpected, but at every turn it bends to cliche and tired plot devices.

A close second in terms of major flaws is the movie’s completely misunderstanding of how human beings work.

For instance, the family doesn’t lock down their house until five minutes before the Purge starts.  What if someone dangerous got in beforehand? (SPOILERS: they did).  Any reasonable human being would barricade themselves in at least a few hours early, if not a whole day.

Ethan Hawke sells security systems and knows they’re mostly just for show, but instead of installing some sort of safe room, he buys a small armory.  But then, instead of everyone arming up–even after a stranger escapes into the house–the whole family shares a single weapon for the brunt of the film.

The daughter character is constantly wandering off and nobody seems to think this is a bad idea.

 Baby Gerard Way is told to hide in the basement by himself with a flashlight that he leaves on.

Moreover, people seem to be functioning members of society for 364 days of the year, only to miraculously transform into mindless, brainwashed cultists as soon as the sun sets on Purge Day.  It’s just not believable.  People don’t act that way! If you’re aiming for social satire–which The Purge is obviously doing with a stormtrooper’s accuracy–you have to build believable characters to inhabit your dystopia.  Otherwise, it’s not a future that could happen to us, it’s a future that could happen to an ape-like race of  extremely easily manipulated, completely moral-less beings who lack the survival instincts of a sea slug and who are all hopped up on mescaline.

"Dude, like, who needs a boat with a garage?"
“Dude, like, who needs a boat with a garage?”

What’s most disappointing about The Purge is that it could have been so many things.  Imagine this: Hard open on Purge Day, violence ensues.  Our main character loses someone close to him, turns against the system.  Spends the rest of the year trying to overturn Purge Day, only to be met with overwhelming opposition.  He becomes darker and more violent, more desperate.  When Purge Day comes again, will he become what he hates in order to bring about the change he desires?  Will he kill for the greater good?  Will he kill for personal vengeance?  Will he even survive the night?

Although the premise is rich with potential, The Purge fails to deliver on any of it.  It plays to cliche, boasts a legit “magical negro”, and worst of all, feels like a movie made by rich people targeting “poor people who hate rich people” in a simplistic and cynical attempt to turn a profit.  The Purge doesn’t respect its audience, doesn’t understand either of its genres, and seems to have been written by someone who has only had passing experience with human beings.