Monday, June 17, 2013

Man Of Steel: The Blue Boy Scout Grows Up...and Kicks Ass!!!

I find it interesting that I grew up reading comic books yet didn't like the granddaddy of superheroes, Superman. Why?

I found him silly, unrealistic, buffoonish. The four films starring the late Chris Reeve cemented my viewpoint. Leave him to the non-fanboys, I thought. They can have and keep him, I thought. What changed my mind?

His appearance on his solo late 90s animated series, "Justice League: The Animated Series" and "Smallville". He has feelings, doubts, real internal conflicts. He's relatable! The bottle cap of that revelation happens to be the sixth film featuring Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's iconic hero and the sixth film by madcap fanboy director Zack Snyder (the Dawn of the Dead remake, "300", "Watchmen", "Legend Of The Guardians", "Sucker Punch"). The less said about the 2006 misstep, the better...

The birth of the baby, named Kal-El, precedes the destruction of his home planet Krypton, forcing his parents, scientist Jor-El (impressive Russell Crowe of "American Gangster") and ex-astronaut Lara Lor-Van (elegant Ayelet Zurer of "Darling Companion") to send him to Earth via rocket ship with the genetic codes of many Kryptonians. Fanatical military leader General Zod (manic Michael Shannon of "Boardwalk Empire") tries to stop this during a coup d'etat, but fails and he and his loyalists are sentenced to the Phantom Zone.

Kal-El, meanwhile, is found and rechristened as Clark Joseph Kent by farmers Jonathan (Kevin Costner of "Silverado") and Martha Kent (Diane Lane of "Under The Tuscan Sun"), but his budding powers make him an outcast. So, as an adult (buff but noble Henry Cavill of "The Tudors" and "Whatever Works"), Clark leaves Smallville, Kansas, becoming a nomadic worker, until, as an Arctic expedition grunt, he discovers a Kryptonian spacecraft in the North Pole that reveals his heritage and destiny. It's a good thing too as Zod and his group are freed from the Zone by their planet's end, and they see Earth as a new home. Uh-oh...

If you try to compare "Man Of Steel" with the older films, you'll be disappointed. With a powerful yet down-to-earth, sometimes non-linear script by David S. Goyer and Chris Nolan (the Dark Knight trilogy) on his lap, Snyder throws away the camp and silliness of said films and, like the under-rated "Watchmen", matures the superhero archetype. Chris Reeve's Superman can't exist in the real, let alone post Sept. 11 world; he looks dumb, phony, anachronistic. If you're the only powerful alien on a planet whose populace could fear and hate you, you're far from sociable, but you try to make a difference anyway. Mr. Cavill plays that role to total competence.

He's lucky to surrounded by a strong supporting cast, composed of Oscar winners and nominees and Emmy winners and nominees. Crowe has an middle-aged Obi Wan Kenobi tone that outdoes Marlon Brando's Jor-El; Costner (hauntingly good) and Lane (warm & sweet) are baby boomers with Norman Rockwell hints; Laurence Fishburne (the Matrix saga) is dead-on caustic as Daily Planet chief editor Perry White and Chris Meloni (Law & Order: SVU) is valiant as an Air Force general.

Like Cavill, the next two actors have refashioned their characters. As Zod, Mr. Shannon gives an A-game performance, being a mad dog with an army unit, technology and a well-meaning but twisted goal to save his race, conflicting with Mr. Crowe's noble means. It's a Sam Peckinpah bromance on a galatical scale (the director was slated to direct the 1978 film but his rep went south).

The other thespian's button-cute Amy Adams ("Junebug", "Enchanted") as Daily Planet news hound Lois Lane, who befriends our hero. Sure, she's independent and gutsy, but, thanks to the lack of camp, she's also smart, likable, relatable and realistic, not the inane harpy who demeans milksops.

Someone to look out for is Antje Traue as Zod's icy, loyal right-hand lady, Faora-Ul. "For every life you save, we will kill a million more," she promises to Kal-El during a chaotic brawl in his hometown. Speaking of the battles, they are fast and destructive, echoing the "Dragon Ball" animated series. I think I lost a tooth or two...

Hans Zimmer's day-and-night score is Oscar worthy. D.P Amir Morki captures rural tranquilness and urban destruction capably. SFX wiz John Desjardin's work inspires, especially Krypton's magnetic nanotech.

Supposed fans will moan and bitch over this film, but maybe they really don't know Superman as they think they do as they dismiss his fellow heroes at DC Comics, let alone the whole comic book medium. The character's not Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, Woody Woodpecker or Yogi Bear. Despite his powers, he's a person like the rest of us. That's what makes him a great hero, well deserving of a high quality summer blockbuster that's one of 2013's best.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Inherit The Wind: The More Things Change, The More They Remain The Same

I wrote that famous saying because, if you have respect for history, you know about how in 1925, one biology teacher, John T. Scopes, was arrested and tried in Dayton, Tennessee for teaching the theory of evolution to his high school students in a state where the act was illegal (Scopes, for accurate history's sake, volunteered to challenge the law on a bet). Nowadays, creationism, the belief that God created life, is being decorated as "intelligence design" by fundamental Christians who want the idea taught in public schools. Though a judicial defeat came in Dover, Pennsylvania, the idea hasn't lost steam. Just look at the public school system in the state of Kansas. Yeech!!!!

Anyway, "Inherit The Wind" is a fictional account of the "Monkey Trial" Scopes endured, written by Joseph Lawrence and Robert E. Lee as a play. Socially conscious filmmaker Stanley Kramer ("Judgment At Nuremberg", "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner?") took the play to the silver screen and the conclusion is smart, quart-amount funny and proves that having an opinion different from the status quo doesn't (and shouldn't) mean a person should suffer the wrath of judicial condemnation (Hear that, you McCarthies and Asscrofties!).

Bertram T. Cates (a gaunt, brave Dick York) replaces Scopes as the accused in the town of Hillsboro, "the buckle of the Bible belt". His fiancée, Rachel Brown (Donna Anderson) wants to him to admit his guilt and apologize, so their marriage could be a holy union in the eyes of the town's citizens, particularly her preacher father. Cates stands firm, even though high-confidence biblical lawyer and three-times Presidential candidate Matthew Harrison Brady (a spirited Frederic March, whose character swaps with William Jennings Bryant) has volunteered to assist the prosecution. Brady sees "God's on trial", but he didn't count on an old friend, civil rights attorney Henry Drummond (an aging yet scrappy Spencer Tracy), a trade for Clarence Darrow, to defend Cates.

"Wind" is an unusual but heated boxing match. Pro and con opinion holders are boxers meeting in the ring, facing each other and sizing each other up. Onlookers are referees. Nobody throws fists, only words, and thanks must given to Ernest Laszlo, the genius behind the film's cinematography. Two-time Oscar holders Tracy (nominated for this acting gig) and March defend the opposing beliefs as "colonels", deemed by judicial power. And when they argue, they argue! Critics have deemed famed song-and-dance man Gene Kelly ("On The Town", "Singing In The Rain") miscast for the role of E.K. Hornbeck, the faux version of holy ideal-scoffing newsman, H.L. Mencken, who delightfully demeans Brady, his supporters and their belief in God, but the performance is eye-wink ironic. Kelly pokes righteous fun at the "moral people" who have enjoyed his usual musical performances yet have bigoted views against people and ideas different from themselves. However, Kelly's Hornbeck learns he's no different from them in his championing of Cates.

A sharp cast occupies the film, littered with future TV players. York is best known as the first Darrin Stevens of the sitcom "Bewitched"; Claude Atkins ("B.J. And the Bear) is a vehement sour puss as the Reverend Jeremiah Brown; Brady cheerleader Jesse H. Dunlap is played by Ray Teal, of the western drama, "Bonanza"; Harry Morgan (the late 1960s TV version of "Dragnet", M.A.S.H.: The Sitcom) is the no-nonsense judge; a simple farmer is played by Noah Berry Jr. of the detective drama, "The Rockford Files", and Norman Fell ("Three's Company") has a funny, little part as a radio technician.

Two interesting notes: Florence Eldridge, March's real-life wife, plays Brady's wife, Sarah, who shows not everyone on her husband's side is fanatical, and her husband's is "just a man". Also, the film's co-writer, Nedrick Young, had to use the pseudonym, Nathan E. Douglas, in order to be credited with fellow scribe Harold Jacob Smith on the film, let alone work in Hollywood, despite his then-blacklisted status for having Communist ties. How real life and fantasy can intertwine… The 1988 TV remake is a wooden penny, with Jason Robards and Kirk Douglas miscast as Drummond and Brady. The producers probably wanted "a theatrical play" to the film, but a play and a film are two different animals. However, Darren McGavin of the pre-"X Files", sci-fi/horror/fantasy drama, "Kolchak: The Night Stalker" is more than suitable as Hornbeck, since he played an outlaw newsman on TV, and gives the snail-like story some sparks. Superiority is present in the 1999 version with Jack Lemmon as Drummond (he won an Golden Globe), George C. Scott as Brady, Piper Laurie as Sarah, a crackerjack tongued Beau Bridges (his and his brother Jeff's dad, Lloyd Bridges, was also blacklisted) as Hornbeck, Tom Everett Scott as Cates and a pretty, pre-"Cold Case" Kathryn Morris as Rachel.

"Wind", as the play, the 1960 and the 1999 film versions, should be mandatory material in high school because the story's lesson is the right to think, no matter how agnostic or religious you are, is a holy gift.