Man of Steel is like a sprawling mega-budget CGI movie about other sprawling mega-budget CGI movies. The picture borrows imagery from movies much better (The Matrix, for one) and not much worse (the Transformers films). Unlike Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman, which covered some of the same narrative ground, Zack Snyder’s franchise reboot has little humor (I really missed Lex Luthor) and no pop poetry along the lines of Christopher Reeve’s starry-eyed cruise across the night skies with Margot Kidder in the earlier picture. Also missed is Reeve’s knowing twinkle – muscle-stuffed Henry Cavill, who dons the cape here, has been directed to play Superman as one step up from a cipher.
With few other resources, Snyder’s film – scripted by David S. Goyer from a story devised by Goyer and his Dark Knight overlord, Christopher Nolan – is reduced to maximum noise and endless blurry action. There’s also a thunder-god score by Hans Zimmer that just won’t quit. The movie’s not a lot of fun.
Is it possible for any review to “spoil” a Superman film at this late date? I think not. Once again we’re rehashing the story of the Kryptonian infant Kal-El, who is dispatched from his collapsing home planet by his noble father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe). The baby-bearing spaceship lands on Earth, near a Kansas farm town called Smallville, where the kindly Kents (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane, giving the movie’s warmest performances) take the tot in and name him Clark. From this point, the movie leaps back and forth between Clark’s melancholy childhood (we see Earth dad warning the kid to cool it with lifting school buses out of rivers) and his grown-up meanderings as an itinerant loner, making ends meet as a commercial fisherman and a roadhouse table-wiper. (He’s committed to ignoring the bullies who sometimes abuse him, but can’t resist hurling one clod’s truck up into a tree.)
The movie attempts a fresh take on this ancient material by focusing on Clark’s struggle to reconcile the opposing halves of his divided nature. He’s a man whose secret powers are at constant risk of exposure by his selfless determination to help humankind. (He’s also 33 years old – Jesus, time flies.) But this narrative tack mostly produces mopey brooding, and before long you may feel your interest dwindling.
The story’s traditional love object is no surprise, of course. When the U.S. military detects the presence of an alien vessel in an Arctic ice field, big-city newshound Lois Lane (Amy Adams) quickly arrives on the scene to get the scoop. (“I’m a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter,” she actually announces at one point in the film.) Alone among all the top officers and scientists at the military site, Lois spots Clark traipsing around in the snowy distance. She watches him enter a mysterious ice cave, where we soon see him having a heart-to-heart with a hologram of his father Jor-El, who is now dead, in the corporeal sense, having been murdered back on pre-collapse Krypton by the renegade warrior General Zod (Michael Shannon).
Lois writes up a story, but back home in Metropolis, her Daily Planet editor, Perry White (Laurence Fishburne), spikes it for being too preposterous. Frustrated, Lois starts digging into Clark’s past, and soon discovers who and what he really is. And suddenly they are mutually smitten.
This compressed rendition of the Clark-and-Lois relationship discards its most entertaining feature – all the ironic byplay that arises out of Lois’ inability to see that Clark actually is Superman. Here she learns that fact early on; and because Cavill and Adams, hobbled by the movie’s PG-13 rating, are unable to generate much of an amorous glow, their romance is stillborn. We might hope that Shannon’s General Zod will liven things up; but while Shannon is an actor of formidable intensity, he has no interest in the sort of hambone flamboyance that Terence Stamp (“Kneel before Zod!”) brought to this role in the old Donner films. Shannon holds the screen with his commitment to the character, but he doesn’t appear to be having much more fun than we are.
With the movie’s other elements only lightly cohering, we’re left with a whole lot of CGI. Some of it, especially in the early Krypton scenes, has a beautiful high-fantasy sheen; but much of the action – and there’s a lot of it – has a stale familiarity. The movie was shot with hand-held cameras, and then converted to 3D in post-production. This dire combination often results in a virtual tornado of digital incoherence. Superman soars around in his new super-suit (it’s dark and drab), and most of what we get is whoosh and glare. One long battle with Zod, which lays waste to acres of real estate and was clearly intended to be a knockout sequence, devolves into raw noise and visual muddle. Even the $225-million the movie is reported to have cost to make can’t obscure its general messiness
Given the current strategies of international movie-marketing, Man of Steel will probably take in a lot of money. And a sequel is in the works (Superman’s Job Hunt). Still, this is a hard film to get excited about. It might win your cash, but possibly not a lot of your enthusiasm.
The Bling Ring
As we watch the privileged teens in The Bling Ring going about their dumb business – breaking into the homes of their favorite Hollywood celebrities, carting away armloads of luxury swag, and later posing with the stuff in photos they posted on Facebook – it’s hard not to think, “What idiots.”
Director Sofia Coppola doesn’t judge these kids, though. Nor does she seek to project tired platitudes about the amoral youth of today, or the sleaze-pit of American celebrity culture. Her deadpan remove is interesting – the subject itself is unique, in its dismal way, and the personable actors hold our attention – but it’s not especially gratifying. Why should we care about these nitwits? Or for that matter the nitwit celebrities they targeted, who blithely left their swank homes unsecured during their frequent absences?
The movie is based on real events recounted in a 2010 Vanity Fair article by Nancy Jo Sales. The kids’ names have been changed, but the film otherwise closely follows Sales’ story. There are only two famous faces in the cast: Emma Watson, the onetime Hermione, who’s entirely convincing as an acidulous Valley girl named Nicki; and Leslie Mann, familiar from several of her husband Judd Apatow’s films, who plays Nicki’s bubble-headed mother. But the lesser-known actors are solid, too, especially Israel Broussard, who plays the gang’s only male member, the hapless fashion victim Marc, and first-time actress Katie Chang, an Illinois high-school student who plays the ringleader Rebecca, and who already displays a star-like presence. (Former Bush frontman Gavin Rossdale also has a small role as an unsavory club manager who fences some of the stolen goods channeled to him by the Bling Ring, as the young housebreakers became known in the press.)
The group members were drunk on the aura of celebrity, and addicted to such teen TV series as The O.C. and The Hills. (One of the girls here wants to move to New York to enroll in the Fashion Institute of Technology, because “that’s where all the Hills girls went.”) Trolling around the Internet, they were able to locate the addresses of the stars they idolized, and to determine when they would be out of town shooting a film or partying in Las Vegas. Breaking into their homes was easy – there was always some entrance carelessly left open. Over the course of 10 months, starting in 2008, they carted away several millions of dollars’ worth of clothing, jewelry and artworks from the houses of Rachel Bilson (The O.C.), Audrina Patridge (The Hills), Brian Austin Green (Beverly Hills, 90210), Lindsay Lohan, Orlando Bloom, and Paris Hilton.
Hilton, a stranger to any sort of shame, allowed Coppola to film some of the looting scenes in her actual house. This was possibly unwise – her home is a monument to the proposition that fashion can be bought, but style is something you have to be born with. Hilton’s walls are lined with framed magazine covers on which she has appeared, and one sofa is strewn with throw pillows bearing her grinning image. There’s also a “nightclub room,” complete with stripper pole and glittering disco ball, and of course dedicated caves filled with shoes, jewelry, and other pricey clutter. (Picking through Hilton’s hilariously extensive collection of sunglasses, one of the Bling girls breathlessly notes, “These are Alexander McQueens!”)
The movie is sleekly rendered, and contains some memorable shots. In one scene, we watch from afar as the group ransacks a house, seeing only their shadows flitting past windows. The film is a pleasure to look at, but the nagging question of why we’re doing so never recedes.
Alexis Neiers, the real-life Bling girl on whom Watson’s character is modeled, scored her own reality TV show on the E! channel and had just shot the first episode when police moved in to bring the group’s larcenous career to an end. Interviewed by Sales afterward, she conveyed some strikingly vacuous thoughts, which are voiced by Watson, in the movie, verbatim.
“I’m a firm believer in Karma,” Neiers said, “and I think this situation was attracted into my life because it was supposed to be a huge learning lesson for me to grow and expand as a spiritual human being. I see myself being like an Angelina Jolie, but even stronger, pushing even harder for the universe and for peace and for the health of our planet. God didn’t give me these talents and looks to just sit around being a model or being famous. I want to lead a huge charity organization. I want to lead a country, for all I know.”
This statement tells us a lot about the Bling Ring kids. Maybe all we need to know.