Tag Archives: movies

Geeksquirrel’s Nutty Review: Man of Steel

It is, I think, an axiom that every hero is a reflection of their generation. Back when Superman was first created, he was pretty much a tougher-than-average strongman who had no reservations about bullying people into submission. As time wore on, the character grew to become the archetypical boy scout that dominated his persona for most of his existence. In the Superman films of the 70’s and 80’s, this persona was used to provide humor. The naive hero who said he fought for truth, justice and the American Way was rebuffed with a caustic “You’re going to be fighting every politician in the country!”. Such was the cynical post-Vietnam climate the these films were created in. Over time, the comedy overran the series, to the point where the idea of Superman and his enemies was hardly something to be taken seriously, but rather an opportunity to be cornball and show dumb sight gags involving super-breath. As beloved at it rightfully is, the Christopher Reeve Superman was still a trifle campy, so much so that the original director Richard Donner was fired over trying to keep things serious.

Given that, how will Superman fare in a gritty, terror-ridden world where everything alien is viewed with suspicion? That is the question that Man of Steel tries to ask, and I think this is why so many of the negative reviews of the film seem to pine for the whimsical style of the Reeve era. This is Superman taken as realistically as possible. It is very much a darker film; even the brilliant whites of Krypton have been replaced by a moody Matrix-style planet. But within this dark environment there is still at the core the same message of hope that has always been there. Superman’s purpose is to inspire us to be better people, to reach for an ideal even if we constantly falter in the process. Such an inspiration is sorely needed in the post-911 world, and it is no mistake that Clark’s efforts to defeat the Kryptonian General Zod are inter-cut with individual heroics by humans both civilian and military. It’s as if our real-life heroes are suddenly granted an superpowered ally, or as if Superman himself has become a metaphor for the heroics that we witness in every catastrophe. Those who were wishing for the kind of flights of fancy that the original films did so effectively will be disappointed. There are no romantic moonlit flights with Lois Lane, nor any pathetic criminals getting their just desserts in comedic fashion. What we get is as close to a real-life Superman as you can get; one who is surrounded by tragedy but who still strives to do the right thing, and in the process he inspires others to do the same.

That said, the movie is far from technically perfect. The third act suffers from the kind of over-extended action sequences that plagued Star Trek: Into Darkness, leaving the viewer longing for a breather. The muted color pallet also makes it difficult to follow the faster-than-a-bullet action sequences, with Superman’s darkened uniform sometimes blending into the background. On the plus side, the film is stacked from top to bottom with Oscar caliber actors, all of whom invest completely into their roles. Henry Cavill, while admittedly limited in his dialogue, is able to convey the mystery and loneliness of the alien searching for his place in this world. His one performance flaw is a tendency to yell a lot, much like a Spartan out of director Zack Snyder’s previous film, 300.

Dylan Sprayberry and Cooper Timberline are both wonderful as the much-bullied younger versions of Clark Kent. Amy Adams turns in her usual charming performance as a somewhat muted Lois Lane. She is less grating and irascible than Margot Kidder’s take on the character, but she occasionally lacks the same fiery spirit, and her chemistry with Cavill is not nearly as electric as that between their 70’s counterparts. Kevin Costner and Russell Crowe are both impressive as Jonathan Kent and Jor-El, two very different men who nonetheless share the same core values and share the responsibility for fathering the fledgeling hero.

Critics of this film should not be surprised that we got a darker, grittier take on Superman. It is, after all, the reason why Christopher Nolan was involved in the first place, and it continues the realistic take on the characters that Nolan began with his Batman trilogy. It is somewhat ironic that DC Comics, once considered the more traditional, brighter and lighter of the two major comic firms, has begun a series of films that will undoubtedly be much more grounded than their original source material, while Marvel has for the most part gone for the flashy, humorous and more whimsical approach that DC was once known for. Superman was the first of comic superheroes, and hopefully the proposed films of the long-floundering DC universe will follow his lead, giving us grounded, realistic stories that still carry a message of hope.

Man of Steel gets Four Acorns out of Five!


Geek Squirrel’s Nutty Review: Star Trek: Into Darkness.

In a previous blog I posted my concerns about J. J. Abrams’ seeming lack of comprehension regarding the original spirit of Star Trek. Some readers considered it an indictment of the rebooted franchise, and in a sense it was. That said, Abrams did deliver a fresh take on the series that was enjoyable and modern, despite its flaws. In Star Trek: Into Darkness, Abrams and his writing staff appear to go overboard in their attempts to please old school Star Trek fans, and while I applaud their efforts, their failure to really understand the philosophy of the series leads to some serious problems in the third act. That said, Into Darkness is still a very enjoyable movie and almost everything that a good summer blockbuster should be. It succeeds as solid entertainment but fails to reconcile itself to the original source material.

The movie itself is not short on action. Most of the sequences are well-choreographed and exciting, but some of them, particularly a shuttle chase midway through the second act, are borderline gratuitous and could easily have been removed. The actors are all given something interesting to do, and each deals with it with varying degrees of success. The principles all turn in well-crafted performances, and Benedict Cumberbatch finally gives the world at large a taste of his acting abilities. The film also attempts to deal with some post-9/11 issues in a somewhat limited fashion. There are attempts at the higher sense of morality that the original series was famous for, but the third act backslides into simple good vs. evil sensibilities.

Some of the movie’s stumbles lie in the common blockbuster errors of excesses at the expense of logic. Many situations are set up based on the flimsiest of notions, like the opening where the Enterprise is hiding underwater in order to avoid detection from a primitive alien race. Why it was necessary to hide the immense ship in the ocean when she would be perfectly safe and secure in orbit is never explained, nor does it serve any obvious purpose other than to set up a ‘money shot’ of her rising from the depths. Similarly, newcomer Alice Eve is exposed in a ridiculously juvenile T and A scene. Abrams piles on the explosions in the third act, setting up action sequence after action sequence like Michael Bay on a weekend bender. Again, these sequences are wonderful as individual set pieces, but they tend to overrun the movie like an endless parade of shiny red fire trucks.

Much of the film’s major narrative flaws have to deal with Benedict Cumberbatch’s character, and in deference to those who have not seen the movie, I will refrain from spoilers until further down in this review. Suffice it to say that Cumberbatch begins as an intriguing, mysterious villain, but devolves into a common bad guy that needs to be punched out as brutally as possible. Again, part of this lies in attempts to cater to fans of the original series, which some viewers might find pleasing but others may find highly contrived. I will allow you to form your own opinion on the issue, but I personally fall into the later camp. If you wish to read a more detailed analysis, feel free to stick around after the final rating, otherwise, this is your spoiler warning.

Star Trek: Into Darkness gets Three Acorns out of Five!
The Final Frontier…..

Still with me? All right then.
Abrams has admitted that he was not a fan of the original Star Trek, nor did he appreciate the type of idealistic moralizing the show indulged in. This is eminently clear in his writing staff’s treatment of the latter half of Into Darkness, which is essentially a reboot of Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan. In re-visiting the classic film, Abrams effectively shoe-horns large chunks of dialogue from the original film into the climax of his own, instead switching the roles of Kirk and Spock so that the good Captain is the one who makes the sacrifice. Abrams and writer Robert Orci wisely back off from a verbatim re-shoot of the emotional death scene, but enough of the dialogue is in place to make some viewers visibly cringe upon witnessing what seems to be a near-parody of a classic sci-fi moment.

In rebooting the original story, however, Abrams and Orci back away from exploring a potentially deeper moral in favor of returning to simple good guy versus bad guy mentalities. Throughout the first act, Kirk is portrayed as a person hell-bent upon revenge against Khan, and it is only Spock’s calming influence that prevents him from simply killing Khan outright. This is reinforced when the crew discovers that Khan was merely a pawn in a conspiracy engineered by their superior officer at Starfleet. Khan’s terrorist actions were in effect an attempt to stop a renegade Admiral who was holding his people hostage. At this point, the morality of Kirk and company is evident. Kirk realizes that his desire for revenge may be at least somewhat misplaced, and he brokers a truce with Khan in order to defeat the Admiral. This creates an interesting commentary on the post-9/11 world. The idea that the pursuit of revenge has corrupted the United States has been a facet of other post-9/11 fiction, most notably the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica. But no sooner has the Admiral been defeated then Khan reverts to his evil ways, setting up the reboot of the original film’s ending. This completely undermines the potential for a morality play on the level of classic Star Trek, for in the end, the crew decides to “get the bastard” in order to avenge Kirk, and Spock is only prevented from killing Khan due to a contrived need for a deus ex machina to revive his Captain.

In attempting to re-imagine Wrath of Khan, Abrams and his writers back away from the kind of philosophical and moral stance that was a hallmark of the original series; a moral stance that Abrams confessed he did not enjoy or appreciate when he first watched the show. The creators’ lack of understanding of the source material is equally evident in their treatment of Khan himself, for the potential of redemption existed within the character when he was first introduced in the episode “Space Seed”.

KIRK: Name, Khan, as we know him today. (Spock changes the picture) Name, Khan Noonien Singh.
SPOCK: From 1992 through 1996, absolute ruler of more than a quarter of your world. From Asia through the Middle East.
MCCOY: The last of the tyrants to be overthrown.
SCOTT: I must confess, gentlemen. I’ve always held a sneaking admiration for this one.
KIRK: He was the best of the tyrants and the most dangerous. They were supermen, in a sense. Stronger, braver, certainly more ambitious, more daring.
SPOCK: Gentlemen, this romanticism about a ruthless dictator is
KIRK: Mister Spock, we humans have a streak of barbarism in us. Appalling, but there, nevertheless.
SCOTT: There were no massacres under his rule.
SPOCK: And as little freedom.
MCCOY: No wars until he was attacked.
SPOCK: Gentlemen.
KIRK: Mister Spock, you misunderstand us. We can be against him and admire him all at the same time.

Khan was presented as more Napoleonic that Nazi, and while his attempt to take over the ship was ruthless, he expressed frustration at what he saw as being forced to kill in order to achieve his ends. It is Khan’s admirable qualities that eventually persuade Kirk to give him a chance to start his own civilization by marooning him with his people on a habitable planet. (The fact that it tragically did not work out was the setup for Wrath.) As such, the potential for creating a more layered villain existed in this story, and had Abrams and Orci taken notice of this, they might have broken new ground with the character. Had they chosen to keep Khan on the path to redemption, or at least made him somewhat redeemable, they would have kept to the spirit of the original series while creating a more original and creative story. At the very least, they could have stuck more to the spirit of the original episode by exiling Khan rather than beating him down and shoving him into a cryo tube. By choosing to re-create Wrath of Khan, however, they created a contrived, forced conclusion that trampled on the morals espoused by the original series. Adhering to the philosophy of original Trek would arguably have delivered a film more satisfying to old school fans, while at the same time escaping the sense of re-treading (harsher critics might say ‘stomping on the hallowed memory of’) Wrath of Khan

It is a shame that Abrams and Orci seem to be unable to reconcile the flashy effects, superb acting and spot-on characterizations with a story that explores deeper issues and breaks new ground. If a third installment is created, I am hoping that they will end these rather weak attempts to pander to old school fans with mishandled plot reboots, and instead focus on what new Trek does best: present a newer, hipper and more action-oriented film that respects the original material rather than pays lip-service to it.

P. S. Am I the only one who thought the “old Spock” cameo was also a waste of time?

GeekSquirrel’s Nutty Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II

What a long strange journey it’s been….

I jumped into the Harry Potter phenomenon round about the time the fifth book, “Order of the Phoenix” was coming out. I spent some time catching up on the series before the book’s release and was impressed to find that for the most part the hype was not unjustified.  The books were fun, engaging, and had a wonderful cast of characters.  True there were faults, but these could be easily overlooked because the strengths of the story overcame the weaknesses.  The same cannot always be said of the movies, which to be honest have been an uneven series at best.  The child-like magical realm of the first two films gradually evolved into the adolescent anxieties and darker tones of the middle films, and while all had entertaining bits, none seemed to completely get it right.  Until now my favorite of the bunch has been “Prisoner of Azkeban”, the film that broke away from the fairy tale feeling and injected the series with a grittiness and realism that had been sorely lacking. I did not much enjoy “The Half-Blood Prince”, which felt rushed and seemed to cut out some major backstory, and I was more than a little concerned that director David Yates had been retained for the final two installments.

“Deathly Hallows Part 1” was a wonderful surprise.  For the first time the acting and story were not overshadowed by the special effects, and we all got to see what happens when a group of child actors spends a decade working with the cream of the crop of British acting.  Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson have all matured into strong performers, who know the acting craft even if they do not possess the charisma of their cast mates.

“Deathly Hallows Part 2” continues the story, and again the actors take center stage.  Everyone from the leads on down pours their acting guts out for this last hurrah, and even the spectacular and extended Battle of Hogwarts cannot overshadow the very human drama that is taking place.  Radcliffe puts in his best work of the series as Harry is confronted by the truths he never expected to find. Watson and Grint are able as well, but just about every member of this long-standing ensemble gets their moment to shine.  Here are a few of the standouts:

Helena Bonham Carter: after having gleefully chewed scenery for four films, she is presented with the challenge of playing Bellatrix as impersonated by Hermione Granger.  Carter’s imitation is so spot on that you could actually believe it’s Emma Watson hiding behind her.  At one point Ms. Carter has to portray Hermione impersonating Bellatrix, and while a lesser actor might have parodied the character of Bellatrix, Ms. Carter keeps her performance firmly grounded in Hermione’s shoes.  It almost makes you believe in polyjuice potion.

Evanna Lynch: Most Potter fans know how Ms. Lynch won the job of Luna Lovegood.  While not as strong in the acting department as her castmates, Ms. Lynch takes full advantage of the opportunity to stretch her wings a little, standing up to Harry when he fails to listen to her and sharing a bit of shipper-inspired romance with Neville Longbottom.  Which brings us to….

Matthew Lewis: For the win!  Who would have thought the dumpy kid we were introduced to in the first film would grow up into a total romantic hero/spell-kicking badass.  Readers of the series wanted to be able to cheer for Neville all the way in this movie, and he gets several moments to shine…delivering an unexpected “it ain’t over til it’s over” speech and basically leading the charge against the Death Eaters.

I could mention everyone in the cast and pick out a moment where they were brilliant, from Jason Issac’s portrayal of a broken and terrified Lucius Malfoy, to the unspoken love between Tonks and Lupin, to the tragedy of the twins Fred and George and to Julie Walters in the best-choreographed fight scene in the film.

But Alan Rickman steals the show, both in his final death scene (rewritten to include a line that I felt was sorely missing from the books….you’ll know what I mean when you hear it), and in the flashbacks where Harry finds out the truth about Severus Snape.  Rickman brings both the tragedy and the bravery of the character to vivid life in just a few small scenes.

It’s a tribute to this cast that none of them appeared to slouch or stroll their way through the film.  Everyone took their job seriously and the fact that they actually outshine the special effects is a testament to their skills.  In fact if the film does have a shortcoming it is that the effects department comes up a bit short in places.

But perhaps the best surprise for me was the infamous epilogue.  The “Where are they Now?” scene as presented in the book feels clunky, saccharine, and highly lame, but here the filmmakers actually manage to turn the scene into a very tender moment by focusing most of the attention on young Albus Severus Potter.  In  so doing we are returned for a moment to the child-like wonder of the first films, and we get to relive how the story began in the excited but nervous eyes of Harry’s offspring.

The biggest strength of this film is that it actually improves upon the source material.  Some of the weakest parts of the book (like the epilogue) are transformed into wonderful moments, others, like Snape’s death, are given far more weight and drama, and the Neville and Luna sequences are an obvious nod to the fans who thought J. K. dropped the quaffle by not having them together in the first place.

So one acorn for the writing, one for the supporting cast, one for the leads, and one to Jo for bringing this world to life.  And half an acorn for awesomeness….

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 gets Four and a Half Acorns out of  Five!