FRESH POUR: Man of Steel (2013) / This Is the End (2013)

Clint takes a look at two new releases that come out each week –just a short look at what’s being released in theaters, along with some drinking rules for your own perusal.

Man of Steel / dir. Zack Snyder / Warner Bros. Pictures

Man of Steel

It seems that much of your opinion on Man of Steel depends on your relationship with Superman – whether you’re an avid comic book fan or someone who’s only familiar with him from the Richard Donner movies (or even just pop culture osmosis). Director Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel gives us a Nolan-style reboot of the character, grounding his story in his own personal search for belonging and purpose, a man truly torn between two worlds. This time, the gee-golly Clark Kent of other media is replaced by a bullied, tormented and lost boy, played with stoic humorlessness by Henry Cavill. Cavill does a decent job of capturing the Christlike earnestness of Superman, but his chiseled, Justin-Kirk-on-HGH look doesn’t have the kind of humor necessary to make the character all that watchable for me; for the most part, I found him more of a bore than I wanted. There are scenes when he attempts wry humor, to be sure, but they always feel out of place (particularly a scene near the end where he literally slaps down the US surveillance drone program) – perhaps because everyone else in the film is also really dour. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not making a “NOT MY SUPERMAN” argument here; I don’t really care one way or the other what Superman is “supposed” to be like, and I welcome different interpretations of the character. I’m just saying I found myself bored at times.

This may have something to do with the film’s length, which is a bit too much for the story to support, and the odd pacing of the thing. Scenes are structured in strange ways, two-bit characters with little development beforehand are suddenly given immense responsibilities or put in incredible peril, and the action scenes in particular suffer from a certain repetitiveness. I can only watch people punch each other while flying so long before my eyelids start to close; it was the same problem I had with Sucker Punch.  There are exceptions of course; the beginning twenty minutes on Krypton feature Russell Crowe fighting off a rebellion on his world as it crumbles around him, and there’s a second-act escape scene aboard the enemy ship where computer-Crowe uses his hacking magic to help Lois (a wasted Amy Adams) escape. Crowe turns out to be a much more compelling lead than Cavill, making me wish I’d rather watch a feature-length Adventures of Jor-El and His Flying Avatar Dragon.

The rest of the cast is great to serviceable; the highlight of the film, far and away, is Michael Shannon’s Zod, who plays his military villain with an incredible sense of restrained rage and determination. Shannon rarely gets roles where he gets to ham it up, and his particular slice of ham is excellent, since it maintains that modern-mobster smolder his stony face has given us in so many roles (like The Iceman). Kevin Costner is also extremely heartwarming and giving as Pa Kent, with a reserved cautiousness to his parenting that I found compelling. Diane Lane’s Ma Kent elevates the somewhat tepid and repetitive scenes of Clark at home. However, everyone else struggles a bit, no matter how good the players are; even Laurence Fishburne, Richard Schiff and Chris Meloni have a hard time fitting their teeth around David S. Goyer’s clumsy, on-the-nose dialogue. (One particular monologue with henchwoman Antje Traue in an iHop is particularly clunky.) The actual dialogue is what brings the film down the most, apart from the languid action scenes.  Luckily, the film’s images are top-notch, with beautiful, exotic production design for Krypton and their technology and gorgeous cinematography. Hans Zimmer’s score ain’t too bad, either, still falling into his usual traps on occasion but really elevating the material with its intensity.

Ultimately, what makes the film succeed more than fail are its ideas: the themes of the film are clear without being contradictory, and Superman as a character is given complexities that give his interpretation weight (even through the tepid performance by Cavill). The idea of Superman-as-immigrant is consistent and interesting; here we have a world that struggles to wrap its head around someone who doesn’t fit in, and yet embodies our best ideals. One interesting line is his confession that he’s “from Kansas. That’s about as American as you can get,” which plays into the question of what “being American” truly means, and whether there is a perception of levels of Americanism. The thematic importance of America/Earth being the land of choice and opportunity, allowing a foreigner whose society limits those choices to truly forge his destiny, is well explored.

As evidenced by our episode on Sucker Punch, I have an ambivalent relationship with Zack Snyder; I’m usually more forgiving than others (I love Dawn of the Dead, for example, and I greatly enjoy Watchmen still), but accusations of Snyder’s emphasis on style over substance is a common criticism levied toward him. To that end, I was actually relieved to see a degree of restraint in his usual tics in Man of Steel; overly-slick slow-motion speed-ramping antics normally attributed to him are gone, replaced with an earnest if hurried style that feels like an amalgam of several influences. In the film, you can see Malick’s ponderous love for the American Midwest, J.J. Abrams’ love for slick production design and lens-flare, and producer Christopher Nolan’s gritty ponderousness and love of shakycam. To his credit, Snyder manages to pull all of these influences into a halfway coherent style, and it’s really refreshing to see him film scenes this way. It’s not perfect by any means, but it’s worth a watch if only for its fascinating first half.

Clint’s Verdict: Liked It

Drinking Rules for Man of Steel:

1) Drink whenever the film dips in and out of flashback
2) Drink whenever a character exposits about Clark’s potential importance or greatness
3) Drink for every instance of product placement, no matter how jarring
Finish Your Drink When:
Martha Kent (Diane Lane) says, “Nice suit.”

This is the End / dir. Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg / Columbia Pictures

This is the EndIn Superbad, writing team Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg managed to write a pretty decent tale about adolescent friendship, the prospect of growing apart, and what that would mean for the both of them. In this way, This is the End feels like a sequel to Superbad, while also being an excellent stoner comedy in its own right. Here, Jay Baruchel (himself) goes with Seth Rogen (himself; okay, it’s all going to be ‘themselves’ from here on out so keep that in mind) to James Franco’s house for a big rager with all their Hollywood friends, only to find themselves attempting to survive the Biblical apocalypse along with fellow celebrity survivors Craig Robinson, Jonah Hill and Danny McBride.

Once the initial setup starts, the film becomes all about the group’s struggles to maintain their supplies, figure out what’s going on, deal with intruders from the outside, and settle the conflicts within their own group. While the plot itself is fairly cut and dry in terms of progression, what really elevates it is the cast: this group of actors are clearly friends, and it shows in their incredible chemistry. This film will live or die based on how you feel about these actors; if you love them, you’ll love them here, and vice versa. Rogen, Franco and McBride in particular turn in some grade-A comedy material, as they bicker about their past careers, masturbation privileges in the house, and giving off ‘rapey vibes’ around fellow survivor Emma Watson.

All of these scenes have a great freshness to them that make them infinitely watchable, as we watch these doofuses so caught up in their personal baggage and self-centered minutiae that they seem to forget that the world’s ending outside their window. Each cast member sends themselves up perfectly – Rogen as the noncommittal, avoidant slacker, Baruchel as the uppity hipster actor who pretends he’s ‘above’ LA, the sanctimonious and overly-nice Hill, the earnest but buffoonish Robinson, the misanthropic McBride, and so on. James Franco even gets some great moments playing up his pretentious fine-arts douchebag persona, hinting that these actors all know their bad sides and aren’t afraid to show them. The film plays like a higher-stakes, raunchier version of a Neil Simon play, like if The Odd Couple took place during the Tribulation, and Oscar and Felix were actually six Hollywood A-listers.

In the meantime, it’s still a slickly directed movie, and even the apocalyptic moments stand out as interesting. A rape scene with Hill (although uncomfortably played for laughs) provides a wonderful Rosemary’s Baby reference, and the scenes where they must contend with demonic monsters still work as moments of suspense. At the core of the film, as with Superbad before it, is the friendship issues of the Rogen and Evan Goldberg characters (Baruchel here being an analog for Rogen’s screenwriter/friend). This time, unlike the adolescent fear of growing apart  in Superbad, the two friends are dealing with the fact that they’ve already grown apart and are in denial of it. The few scenes that deal with this directly are nice, but the way it’s peppered throughout the film in little moments make it that much better.

There’s really not much more to talk about in the film, as it’s pretty much a straightforwardly great comedy from this pack of actors in the vein of Pineapple Express, 21 Jump Street and so on. There are a few unfortunate missteps, including an overly-long final scene that grated for me a bit (but that’s just a taste thing). Long story short, if you liked those movies, you’ll like this one – it’s easily the best comedy film I’ve seen all year.

Clint’s Verdict: Loved It

Drinking Rules for This Is The End:

1) Drink anytime a previous movie in one of the actors’ careers is namedropped
2) Drink whenever a penis is shown, referenced or castrated
3) Drink any time James Franco’s gun could kill somebody
Finish Your Drink When:
You see the title card “THE EXORCISM OF JONAH HILL” on the screen.

Next week, Clint takes a look at the long-delayed book adaptation World War Z and the Pixar sequel Monsters University!

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About Clint Worthington

Clint Worthington is a Chicago-based film/TV critic and podcaster. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, you can find his other film work at Consequence of Sound (where he is a Senior Staff Writer), Crooked Marquee, IndieWire and UPROXX. He is also the co-host of Nathan Rabin's Happy Cast.

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