Man of Steel is a self-consciously epic re-imagining of the Superman story, first told in print in the 1930s and most recently rebooted on screen by Bryan Singer as Superman Returns just prior to the commencement of my reviewing career in 2006. It’s remarkable both for the scale of the production, the stakes for producers DC and Warner Bros, and for the degree to which I disliked it. Usually, I don’t get too riled up about blockbuster comic book fantasy pictures — they are either more entertaining or less — but this one got under my skin so much I was actually quite angry by the time the closing credits finally rolled.
I don’t have room here (because there are actual good films I’d rather talk about) to tear the Man of Steel apart but I will float a few thoughts that have been bothering me recently about blockbuster movies generally: It seems to me that the huge amounts of computing horsepower that directors have at their fingertips nowadays is being used, for the most part, to destroy.
[pullquote]Man of Steel delights in destruction, reeling off 9/11 trauma-triggering moments with reckless abandon.[/pullquote]I’m getting very tired of watching buildings, streets and even entire cities razed digitally to the ground without a second thought for the (admittedly still digital) people inhabiting them. This is an arms race and somehow directors (like MoS’s Zack Snyder) have decided that every new tentpole needs to use even more imagination to destroy even more stuff and kill even more people who will go unmourned by the heroes supposedly there to protect them.
Wellington’s first Roxy Cinema was either notorious or legendary depending on your point of view. Originally the Britannia on Manners Street, it was renamed the Roxy in 1935 and ran as an idiosyncratic independent until demolition in 1974. Old school projectionists would tell you that the Roxy was a genuine fleapit, running continuous sessions (no cleaning) and providing a central city hideout for people skipping work or school.
According to “The Celluloid Circus”, Wayne Brittenden’s wonderful history of cinemas in New Zealand, owner Harry Griffith was once asked by a cashier if she should call the truant officer to apprehend some young miscreant. “Let him buy his ticket first,” snapped Griffith, “then report him.”
Griffith took a showman’s approach to programming, once risking the wrath of 20th Century Fox by scheduling an impromptu double feature of Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra and Kenneth Williams in Carry On Cleo. That’s the kind of spirited whimsy we tried to encourage at the Paramount in my day and I do miss it.
My big beef with most eco-documentaries is the lack of hope. Whether it’s Rob Stewart (Sharkwater), Franny Armstrong (The Age of Stupid) or even Leonardo DiCaprio (The 11th Hour) most of these films go to a lot of trouble to tell you what’s wrong with the planet but leave us feeling helpless and depressed.
That’s why I like Kathleen Gallagher’s work so much. Her film last year, Earth Whisperers/Papatunauku told ten stories of people who were making a difference, inspiring change and showing us that there are solutions as well as problems. This year she has repeated the tonic, focusing on our waterways and our relationship with the sea: Water Whisperers/Tangaroa.
It’s all about the adaptations this week and contender number one is a film that deserves all the attention it has been receiving, even though it falls well short of its esteemed source material. Zack Snyder’s Watchmen is based on the greatest graphic novel of all time, Moore and Gibbons 1986 pre-apocalyptic masterpiece which is one of the darkest portraits of the modern human condition ever rendered in the bold, flat colours of a comic book.
In a parallel USA in which costumed vigilantes are real but outlawed, the spectre of nuclear annihilation looms over a supposedly free society that is coming apart at the seams. One by one, somebody is disposing of the retired heroes and only masked sociopath Rorschach (who never turned in his mask, revealed his identity or stopped beating up bad guys) deems it worthy of investigation.
One of the benefits of a marginally-classical education is that when someone makes a film about King Leonidas and The Battle of Thermopylae I have a vague idea what they’re on about before I go in but nothing could prepare me for the sheer visceral “total” film-making on display in Zack Snyder’s extraordinary 300. Involving and repellent by turns, it’s a thrilling testament to full-on masculine male manliness; unspeakably violent of course but extreme in almost every other way imaginable too.
Based on Frank Miller’s $80-a-copy graphic novel (recreated frame for beautiful frame in many cases), 300 follows Leonidas and his hand-picked Spartan army as they try to defend a disinterested Greece from a million Persians, their slaves, elephants and transexuals.
Leonidas is played with considerable star-making charisma by Gerard Butler (Dear Frankie); Aussie David Wenham narrates as if he got punch in the throat as well losing an eye in the battle and the beautiful Lena Headey as Queen proves that Spartan women were made of the same perfectly formed but psychologically incomplete material as the men.
Fresh from the Showcase, The Namesake is a lovingly rendered (if overlong) adaptation of the novel of the same name by Jhumpa Lahiri featuring Kal Penn (given name: Kalpen Modi), veteran star of juvenile rubbish like Epic Movie and Van Wilder. Penn proves he really can act as Gogol Ganguly, New York-born Indian searching for an identity that doesn’t involve his embarrassing first name.
In the initially bewildering Stomp The Yard, Columbus Short plays DJ, a young hoodlum and gifted dancer who is given one more chance after the death of his younger brother in a dance-related brawl. That chance involves enrolling in Truth University, the legendary African-American centre of learning and culture where the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Michael Jordan set the highest alumni standards.
At Truth he finds his dancing skills are tested in the National Steppin’ Contest (a kind of team dancing unique to Black America) and his romantic skills are given a tweak by the beautiful April (Meagan Good). I’m about as far away from the target market for this film as can be imagined but, once I’d worked out that this dancing stuff was actually serious, I quite enjoyed it.
Meanwhile, Vitus is a little sweetie from Switzerland about a gifted child who desperately wants to be normal. A lovely performance from twinkly Bruno Ganz is worth the price of admission and Teo Georghiu as 12-year-old Vitus really has the chops to make that old joanna sing. Remarkable.
Finally a couple of disposable items for the school holidays: TMNT is actually the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and it boasts video-game quality animation and a slumming Patrick Stewart on villain-voice-duty. I found the turtles really annoying but, then again, they are teenagers. It’s sort of the point.
Much more entertaining is Disney’s Meet the Robinsons, an anarchic affair that unlike other animated films has a kind of improvised quality, bouncing along chucking jokes in random directions and a few of them stick. 12 year old orphan Lewis is a gifted inventor desperate for a family. When his latest invention is stolen by mysterious Bowler Hat Guy, young hot-head Wilbur Robinson arrives from the future to help set things straight (and help Lewis find his mother).
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on 11 April, 2007.