Since returning from Cannes, I have been in catch up mode with the important summer releases. Often I like the theory of the summer blockbuster. I prefer the range, formal experimentation and more open ended styles of address of the sort of movie more naturally found at Cannes.
Still I am open to all forms. Also, I certainly understand people feeling a little suffocated by seeing, over and over, a particular kind of "festival film," grinding, even self-annihilating. Yet the alternative seems too bleak and worrisome to even fully contemplate.
Last week, seeing Israeli filmmaker Roma Burshtein’s superb debut feature, Fill the Void, and finding everything about it pretty much perfect, in the tone, the blocking, the visual construction, I thought to myself, I’d rather see this movie twenty times than have to endure Man of Steel again.
Watching films made and marked for the industrial consumer base, it’s natural to question what has become of the commercial cinema, and why is it so devoid of not just personality but pleasure and sensual wonder.
Justin Lin's preposterous though engaging and rather soulful Fast & Furious 6 is the only one I've sampled that carries any kind of impudent, anarchic wit and style. (Shane Black’s Iron Man Three also has some off-key, subversively funny moments, especially those involving the unveiling of the criminal mastermind.)
Even Lin's work is marked by limitations he instinctively acknowledges without ever truly transcending. I loved the two big set pieces in the film, the chase moving through the coastal Spanish highway that eventually turns into an even more elaborately choreographed pursuit on a runway, the scenarios and complications getting exponentially more imposing and daring, with each block of movement giving full range to a director's design, execution and follow through.
The spectacle is the supreme object of beauty in the films because, it has been painfully obvious since the debut work, the actors and their stories, are prosaic and stitched together rather than dramatically conceived. The cars have always been more expressive than the performers (even the women, though beautiful, are often just another form of decoration).
The Hawksian sensibility at play, the fact the women are almost always presented on an equal plane in their daring, physical courage and supreme style, is certainly welcome; still, I wish Jordana Brewster was not sidelined for much of the film. (Michelle Rodriguez improves just about any movie.) Nothing with a six in its title ought to be this entertaining, though one's excitement is tempered by the realization, by its end, all the film really achieves is satisfying expectations.
By contrast, Marc Forster's World War Z, the new zombie movie with Brad Pitt as a retired UN operative who's tasked with locating the source of an apocalyptic scourge that has wiped out seemingly half the planet, feels creatively exhausted and emotionally played out. It has some harshly evocative imagery, a backlit military transport plane on a frighteningly desolate runway, a red-streaked interior of a Newark tenement, but it's all disassociated and arbitrary.
The extreme digital manipulation of the image has been the worst technological development on movie composition and shape over the last two decades. The whole point of cinema is that it moves, and the best directors draw on the expressive possibilities of angle, color, camera movement and off-screen space that colors and shapes a state of being, a feeling of consciousness visualized and made palpably real.
World War Z has some sharp set pieces, the most impressive for me happens aboard a plane, because the restricted space is one of the few times the danger and fear is actually humanized. The most talked about sequences, the first full-scale eruption of the undead in Philadelphia and a terrifying breaching of a massed wall in Jerusalem, I found fairly cold given the way the imagery, accelerated and manic, is digitized rather than creatively rendered and deployed. Rather than being implicated in the horror, you witness the spastic movement and resulting mass slaughter at a strange remove. It’s all so passive.
Most of the time I pay little attention to production budgets (or box office figures), because there is rarely a chance to adjudicate the numbers. To the extent I follow the numbers, I find them only partially interesting for what people are reacting to and paying to see. The near pornographic emphasis on numbers and figures prevents, I think, a fuller consideration of the work itself. The movie's final third, set inside a special government research facility in Wales, is lean and suitably tense, but like most of the film, also amorphous and detached.
Great horror films, like Eyes without a Face or Rosemarie's Baby, have a cumulative power of dread and unease. World War Z has the pace and impersonal grace of a video game. The surface is lively and immersive, but it has no power or longevity; it recedes right in front of you.
I have not looked at it in the six years since I first saw it, but Bryan Singer's Superman Returns struck me as a serious, square and fairly pleasing variation of his perennial outsider theme. Singer's imaginative visual rhyming of flight and freedom had moments of true poetry. He could not sustain it whenever the material was closer to the ground. His fatal mistake, and the reason the film failed to make a deeper impression was the astoundingly poor casting, most unfortunately his dull choice in the lead, Brandon Routh.
Now, Zack Snyder, in concert with Christopher Nolan, has made another iteration of the Superman tale, called Man of Steel, with the British actor Henry Cavill, in the lead. I liked Snyder's early work, but ever since the bravura title sequence in Watchmen, his work has been pretty much unwatchable. His best talent, as he proved with his very fine remake of George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead, is with appropriation.
Man of Steel is a rather ungainly mélange of styles and sensibilities, Snyder's talent for mimicry never quite meshing with the self-seriousness and reach of Nolan (and the screenwriter, David S. Goyer, the writer of Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy). The movie's moral inquiry and ambition, the allusions to Hamlet and the life of Jesus, bear the unmistakable smug imprint of Nolan; the more visceral and kinetic material suggesting Snyder's influence. The parts never truly cohere.
The very notion of the reboot suggests a radical or at least previously unconsidered approach to recognizable material. The filmmakers (Snyder, Nolan, Goyer) explicitly acknowledge the inherent difficulty of an origins tale, the necessary propulsive movement and fleet tempo choked by the tyranny of plot and exposition. The script has some inventive parts, from the Krypton prologue where the star child is born, to the fairly inventive use of flashbacks. Apart from Amy Adams, a brave, almost feral Lois, to the grace and subtlety of Kevin Costner and Diane Lane, as the adoptive parents, the movie is loud and ungainly.
I liked the German actress Antje Traue (pictured below), as the devastatingly effective commando under Michael Shannon's General Zod. (Shannon's a great actor, a great presence, but the moment he started impersonating Nick Nolte, his contempt for the material could not have been greater.)
The whole technical apparatus required to put these behemoths together invariably leads to a cold, imperious void and the personality, ideas, preoccupations, spatial coherence, of the filmmaker are obliterated in the process. Once it is gone, you never get it back.
Fast & Furious 6 (Universal)
World War Z (Paramount)
Man of Steel (Warner Bros.)