Sunday, June 30, 2013

Best of 2013: The Halfway Point

With the year officially halfway done, it's time to take a look at 2013's best offerings. Though there are few truly great films, 2013 continues in the tradition of 2012 and 2011 by being filled with rich diversity. Even some of the films I wasn't fond of (such as Upstream Color) were at least admirable in their ambitions. Many of the entrants here will likely be gone by the time I compile my Best of the Year list some time in January or February, so here's to their brief moment in the spotlight. 

Best Picture
Before Midnight
In the House
Something in the Air
To the Wonder

Haunting, lyrical, and poetic all describe Cate Shortland's outstanding WW2 character study. Intelligently crafted, and beautifully atmospheric, Lore is a striking examination of one girl's realization that she has been raised on the lies and prejudices of her parents' generation. 

Best Director
Olivier Assayas - Something in the Air
Park Chan-wook - Stoker
Terrence Malick - To the Wonder
Francois Ozon - In the House
Cate Shortland - Lore

Lore's script is spare, and it's thanks to Shortland that it comes to life so vividly. Neither shallow nor pretentious in its artsy flourishes, Shortland's direction is elegant and understatedly powerful.

Best Actor
Ethan Hawke - Before Midnight
Fabrice Luchini - In the House
Mads Mikkelsen - The Hunt
Tye Sheridan - Mud
Ernst Umhauer - In the House

His character is an observer, but Luchini's performance is anything but passive. Despite the script's wordiness, he navigates his character effortlessly, jumping from deadpan comedy to drama with remarkable precision.

Best Actress
Julie Delpy - Before Midnight
Olga Kurylenko - To the Wonder
Andrea Riseborough - Shadow Dancer
Saskia Rosendahl - Lore
Mia Wasikowska - Stoker

The definition of a breakthrough performance. Lore could have easily been strictly a director's piece, but Rosendahl beautifully captures the character's complex dilemma, as well as her struggle to evolve. Hopefully this is but the start of a long and fruitful career.

Best Supporting Actor
Benedict Cumberbatch - Star Trek Into Darkness
Leonardo DiCaprio - The Great Gatsby
Joel Edgerton - The Great Gatsby
James Franco - Spring Breakers
Matthew McConaughey - Mud

One of the best performances of his career resurrection, and all the more noteworthy because it doesn't play into the smarmy smugness of his usual roles. His character has dark secrets, but there's also genuine compassion, and McConaughey knocks it out of the park with his refreshing sincerity. 

Best Supporting Actress
Julie Christie - The Company You Keep
Nicole Kidman - Stoker
Carey Mulligan - The Great Gatsby
Kristin Scott Thomas - In the House
Maribel Verdu - Blancanieves

We already knew that Maribel Verdu could be down to earth and natural on screen. But now she gets to show us that she can vamp it up and go bad up with the best of them. All the more impressive that she does so without speaking a single word.

Best Original Screenplay
I'm So Excited
Something in the Air

Assayas sometimes meanders, but his scope is impressive. He captures the turbulence of the decade without becoming overly supportive of all of the tactics used by his characters.

Best Adapted Screenplay
Before Midnight
In the House
Shadow Dancer
The Great Gatsby

Ozon may be adapting the work of another, but there's no doubt that he's absolutely made the material his own. Smart, tight plotting, enjoyable writing, all leading up to a perfectly framed conclusion. This is one that deserves to stick around for end-of-the-year honors.

Best Editing
In the House
The Grandmaster
To the Wonder

There's nothing flashy about the cutting in In the House, which might actually be its best trait. The move from reality to fiction (or is it?) seamless, and perfectly plays into the constant puzzle of Claude's stories, as well as Germain's interpretations.

Best Cinematography
Spring Breakers
The Grandmaster
To the Wonder

There are technically 'prettier' films than Stoker, but the slick (almost sticky) glossiness of Chung Chung-hoon's images is the perfect compliment to this atmospheric mystery-thriller. 

Best Art Direction
Man of Steel
The Grandmaster
The Great Gatsby

Appropriately larger than life. Everything from Gatsby's mansion to the speakeasies is filled to the brim with stunning detail and design. Catherine Martin has outdone (or at least equalled) her work on Moulin Rouge. 

Best Costume Design
Man of Steel
The Grandmaster
The Great Gatsby

The perfect compliment to Luhrmann's full-on embrace of the excesses of the Roaring Twenties. A veritable fashion show. Martin strikes again.

Best Foreign Language Film
In the House [France]
Lore [Australia/Germany]
No [Chile]
Something in the Air [France]
The Grandmaster [China]

See above. 

Best Documentary Film
Stories We Tell

Fades somewhat on memory, but this extremely personal doc is an intriguing look at a family's secrets and lies. 

Best Original Score
In the House
Man of Steel
Spring Breakers

Sometimes over the top, but always stirring and evocative. Clint Mansell crafts another winner as the main composer, but Philip Glass' piano duet steals the show in the film's best scene.

Best Original Song
"Becomes the Color" - Stoker
"Oblivion" - Oblivion

Strange and mysterious, just like its adolescent protagonist. 

Best Make Up
Iron Man 3
Man of Steel
Star Trek Into Darkness

With all of those demigod-esque being smashing each other, there's little need for the damage to show. When it needs to, however, Man of Steel makes it count. 

Best Visual Effects
Iron Man 3
Man of Steel
Star Trek Into Darkness
The Great Gatsby

Though not the most technically perfect across the board (that would be Oblivion), the renderings of Krypton alone are spectacular enough to earn this the win. 

Best Sound Mixing
Berberian Sound Studio
Fast and Furious 6
Man of Steel
Star Trek Into Darkness

For all of the movies with explosions and machine guns, its the small details of Stoker that stand head and shoulders above the rest. The emphasis on everything from a sharpening pencil to cracking egg shells is ingeniously woven into the story's orientation around India's mindset. Succeeds where We Need to Talk About Kevin went wrong.

Best Sound Editing
Berberian Sound Studio
Fast and Furious 6
Iron Man 3
Man of Steel

Explosions, machine guns, lasers, and alien creatures are just the tip of the iceberg in Man of Steel's expansive world of sounds. 

Friday, June 28, 2013

Review: "White House Down"

Director: Roland Emmerich
Runtime: 131 minutes

There have been any number of articles and essays devoted to understanding our fascination with seeing major monuments destroyed for entertainment. Whether the cause of destruction is man made, natural, or extra terrestrial, there's a certain allure in seeing notable builds fall apart, knowing that they'll still be there when we walk out of the theater. Roland Emmerich is one of the few directors out there whose films have covered every aforementioned form of destruction. 

The White House seems to be a particular favorite of his. Aliens destroyed it in Independence Day, and an apocalyptic tidal wave (wielding an aircraft carrier) snuffed it out in 2012. Clearly determined to destroy the Presidential abode in the remaining method (and complete his holy trinity), Mr. Emmerich is back with White House Down, which features all hell breaking loose on the grounds of 1600 Penn. in spectacularly moronic fashion.

After cementing himself as a star in 2012 with 21 Jump Street and Magic Mike, Channing Tatum has finally graduated to the status of action movie leading man. Unfortunately, Emmerich doesn't care to do anything to James Vanderbilt's script in order to give his leading man more to work with. The film puts Tatum front and center at the start, and tasks him with saving President Sawyer (Jamie Foxx) after a paramilitary group attacks the White House. Yet there are times when the action jumps to the various villains and worried government officials, and the action stalls for so long, that Tatum's Cale almost seems like an afterthought. 

Tatum and Foxx are trying to have some fun with their ludicrous material (the Commander in Chief even gets to fire a rocket launcher), but White House Down quickly fails even as an exercise in dumb fun. Fast and Furious 6 set the bar early this summer, as it blended its intentionally and unintentionally funny pieces together to create a non-stop joy ride. Those behind White House Down are clearly trying to hit a similar target in their execution. Unfortunately, Emmerich's film is totally lopsided in favor of moments that are worth laughing at, rather than with. Every cliche and cheesy thing that's been done before shows up at some point, as though Vanderbilt was simply going down a checklist. Sadly, it's a rather long checklist, and the film outstays its welcome and runs on for more than two choppy hours. Where Fast and Furious 6 created an immediately engaging experience out of its brand of escapism, White House Down never comes together to the point that its silliness becomes truly entertaining. 

It's almost tempting to assert that the film is a satire of likeminded films (such as Olympus Has Fallen, with which it shares a basic premise). Unfortunately, this theory is quashed at every conceivable turn. It's all too silly, groan-inducing, and earnest. And even if it is meant to be a satire, it's a satire that fails horribly. Moments that should excite in their insanity (a car chase on the White House lawn) are devoid of legitimate fun or tension. For the most part, it's all just loud (and hilariously complicated in the later stages). Compounding the problem is Emmerich's direction, which smothers his leading men, and ensures that they never have a chance to pop out of the frame like the stars they are. 

The rest of the talented ensemble are simply left standing around from scene to scene chasing that fat paycheck. Maggie Gyllenhaal, as a secret service agent, does her best to lend some variety to scenes that give her little more to do than act concerned. Meanwhile, Richard Jenkins is left stranded in a role that mostly requires him to stand around looking blank. Meanwhile, James Woods and Jason Clarke growl and snarl to little effect as the main villain and his chief henchman. The former is saddled with a nonsensical motivation, while the latter is little more than a generic brute. It's a shame, because, as evidenced by his turn in Zero Dark Thirty, Clarke is capable to doing a lot with limited screen time.

The true stand-out from the cast, if there is one, has to be It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia supporting player Jimmi Simpson as an evil and eccentric master hacker. The role is far from being well-written, yet Simpson's performance makes its mark simply because it has a personality as artificial and cartoonish as the special effects. Watching Simpson prance around, play classical music, and suck lollipops in his newfound lair underneath the West Wing is pure insanity. It's also the closest that White House Down comes to being the sort of lunkheaded entertainment it strives to be. You'll likely laugh quite a bit at the film, but even the abundance of unintentional humor is difficult to recommend when the overall package is this drawn out, empty, and cringe-worthy. 

Grade: D+

Review: "I'm So Excited"

Director: Pedro Almodovar
Runtime: 90 minutes

Though by no means a masterpiece, Pedro Almodovar's I'm So Excited has, perhaps, been judged too harshly. It's hard to see anyone ranking the film as one of the Spanish auteur's best, but this is no disaster. Rather, it's a return to the camp(ier?) tone and style of Almodovar's earlier works. The results may be far from the director's top tier achievements, and it certainly doesn't linger long after the credits, but this is still a largely enjoyable endeavor from one of world cinema's top talents. It's disposable and lightweight fluff that only Almodovar could whip up.

After taking a sharp left turn into body horror territory with 2011's The Skin I Live In, Almodovar immediately announces his return to lighter fare in his new film's bouncy opening credits. Only minutes later, we've joined the crew and passengers of a flight from Madrid to Mexico City. Yet after only a few hours, the flight crew discovers that the plane is having significant technical difficulties that could force them to make a crash landing. Thankfully, the flight attendants are good at improvising, and knock out the majority of the passengers by slipping muscle relaxers into their drinks, leaving only the collection of oddballs in business class to entertain while the pilots (Antonio de la Torre and Hugo Silva), wait for news from ground control. 

Yet despite being a "bottle movie" (one where characters are confined to a single space), I'm So Excited is anything but stifled by its setting. In fact, the film's weakest stretch comes when Almodovar makes the unwise decision to take us back down to earth for roughly 15 minutes. All of the characters, as is to be expected, have their own secrets and scandals, but the character whose subplot involves seeing other characters on the ground is almost forgotten after the segment ends. There's so much fun interplay across the cast members trapped on the plane (stand-outs include Cecilia Roth, Lola Duenas, and Raul Arevalo), but the earthbound sequence nearly lets all of the air out of the narrative.

But even with such a considerable bump, the film is rarely short of enjoyable, even as its campiness is sometimes too broad for its own good. The cast are all enjoying themselves, playing everything from alcoholic attendants to clairvoyant virgins effortlessly. As secrets come to light, and the film becomes a flat-out sex farce, the story only becomes more of an over-the-top delight. The cast are all completely on point, playing up the heightened comedy and melodrama without ever becoming too serious or condescending towards their characters. By forcing the characters to interact with each other via the setting, there's hardly a dull moment as this herd of eccentrics comes to grips with their secrets and their possible demises.

The shadow of a calamitous death looms in the background of the entire film, yet there is never a heaviness to Almodovar's writing or directing. Leave it to the Spanish maestro to craft a comedy where even the chance of a fiery death never drags down the buoyant proceedings. If one was ever in doubt that the film could maintain its breezy atmosphere, Almodovar throws in a lip-synced musical number that has to go down as one of the liveliest and most enjoyable scenes of his entire career. As the trio of male flight attendants lip-sync along to the titular song, it's difficult to resist the film's infectious spirit. 

And, aside from that nagging subplot in the middle, it's hard to have much ill will towards I'm So Excited. The film is not so much defined by massive flaws as it is simply by never striving to be anything greater. Labeling the film as Almodovar on auto-pilot suggests that the director is barely trying. Rather, this mile-high sex comedy is simply Almodovar having a bit of fun. Its aspirations are limited, but it accomplishes what it sets out to do: provide a snappy, goofy, and delightful time. Just as the the flight attendants do their best to distract the passengers from the possibility of an untimely end, Almodovar and company seek only to provide a bit of fun that's never meant to be anything more than a light-as-a-feather diversion.

Grade: B-

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Review: "World War Z"

Director: Marc Forster
Runtime: 116 minutes

Despite the troubled production of World War Z, those involved can breathe a small sigh of relief. Though the final product is no great film, it doesn't have the feel of a film that went through hell and back on its way to the silver screen. On the flip side, the media frenzy surrounding the film might actually be the most interesting aspect. Remove the backstory, and World War Z becomes little more than a decent piece of entertainment with nothing that makes it a must-see event film. 

Loosely (by which I mean it only shares a name) based on Max Brooks' novel of the same name, the film's story follows many typical story arcs from the zombie genre. What this film tries to accomplish, however, is to show the effects of a zombie outbreak on a global scale (think Steven Soderbergh's Contagion meets 28 Days Later). Yet for all of its wide shots of the swarming undead, this strangely episodic journey is more action-thriller than horror scare-fest. Once Brad Pitt's Gerry Lane escapes the overrun streets of Philadelphia, he starts globe-hopping in an attempt to find where the outbreak began. His journey takes him to South Korea, Israel, and England, as he meets with survivors and does lots and lots of running (the zombies themselves are Usain Bolt-level athletes). 

And, like a very fragmented video game, the film jumps from location to location just in time for Gerry to run into some survivors, and then get chased around in a frantic attempt to escape. To the film's credit, the set pieces are varied, ensuring that the action never becomes numbing, and that the level of tension never flags. All the same, when the film takes a moment to slow down, it feels like a video game cut scene: lots of simple conversations with vague pieces of information about what happened. Human interactions, save for some small moments between Pitt and an injured Israeli soldier, are strictly functional components of the script meant to transition the film from one set piece to the next.

Suffice it to say that character development is not World War Z's strong suit. Brad Pitt delivers a capable, workmanlike tone from underneath a terrible hairdo, but his character's quest to reunite with his wife (Mireille Enos, majorly underused) lacks any real heft. The source of the film's dread comes from the broad strokes of the situations, rather than our attachment to the specific traits of the characters. 

However, this problem, while significant, doesn't truly become apparent until after the credits roll. The film's episodic structure is the closest thing the film has to a standout feature, and it at least provides a variety of settings to run from the undead. Marco Beltrami and MUSE frontman Matt Bellamy provide a suitably effective score that hums underneath the action, ensuring that even the film's quieter moments are kept on edge. Yet as much as  the film wants to be an epic, it can't escape the fact that zombies work best when they're being faced in small, claustrophobic settings. 

Thankfully, the film's ending takes this principle and devises a tight and gripping final sequence. Though millions were clearly poured into shots of zombies flooding over the walls of Jerusalem, the most harrowing moments come in scenes set on a plane and the corridors of an empty research facility. By contrast, the film's coda is little more than shrug-inducing, and comes off feeling like little more than a vague set up for a sequel (or a painfully drawn-out prologue to Brooks' novel).

Ultimately, the biggest "failing" of World War Z is simply that it's neither a jaw-dropping train wreck nor a mind-blowing triumph. Forster and Pitt have delivered a perfectly competent and entertaining film that delivers enough suspense, even as it caters to a PG-13 sensibility (you'll find no The Walking Dead-level gore). It is, for the most part, well-crafted entertainment, even though it proves less interesting than its own journey to get made. 

Grade: C+ 

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Review: "The Bling Ring"

Director: Sofia Coppola
Runtime: 90 minutes

The second indie feature this year about youth behaving badly, The Bling Ring stands as an interesting companion piece to Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers, which opened in March. The latter film was a look at the wild excesses of college spring break. As much as the montages and ambient score drew one into Korine's vision, that film ultimately ended with a lesson, albeit a pat one, about the dangers of unchecked nihilism. Sofia Coppola's film, by contrast, is more concerned with light social commentary and satire. Rather than invite us to revel in the fun that her subjects have, Coppola wants them to be, for the most part, unchanging, all in service of the film's statement about a celebrity-obsessed culture. 

Yet, like Korine's film, The Bling Ring is its director's most accessible film, even as it bears some of her standard stylistic choices. The late Harris Savides' cinematography is crisp, but never flashy, capturing everything in washed out tones. The characters may luxuriate in the items that they steal from celebrities, but Coppola's camera is more interested in sitting back and capturing their exploits. It's very much in line with Coppola's previous films, but it's also a choice that explains the film's split reception. All throughout her career, Coppola has been charged with simply coasting on her father's name (while Jason Reitman, tellingly, avoids the same criticism), and telling nothing more than wafer-thin stories of the privileged. Most of the characters in The Bling Ring are quite well off and, more importantly, unbearably entitled. 

The difference, and it's a big one, is that these aren't characters we're meant to sympathize with. This is most evident whenever Nicki (Emma Watson) and Sam (Taissa Farmiga) are on screen. Nicki, in particular, is a walking target for satire, and she gets all of the best lines that illustrate the titular group's vapidity. Watson, whose performance is easily the most affected, is clearly the film's standout, by virtue of playing the closest to caricature. As things take a turn for the worse, and the law closes in on the bling ring, Watson dominates the film as she seeks to cover her ass at every turn, spouting off lines about karma and spirituality. 

Unfortunately, the characters closer to the forefront of the story aren't quite as fun to watch through their shenanigans, as well as the fallout. Just like the Lifetime movie (of the same title), Coppola's film centers around Marc (Israel Broussard), a shy high schooler who befriends Rebecca (Katie Chang), a rich and popular girl who casually introduces him to the world of theft. First they start by taking a few things about of a clothing store. Before long, they're taking money out of unlocked cars. It doesn't take long for everything to build to a quick trip into Paris Hilton's house (and her expansive closet).

But as Rebecca coaxes Marc into the world of thievery, The Bling Ring fails to fully captivate its audience. Despite the satiric bite of the second half, Coppola's build up feels too reserved and distant. Their backgrounds are too hazily sketched out for their adventures to be anything more than exercises in wanton entitlement. By contrast, early scenes with Watson and Farmiga, along with Leslie Mann as their "The Secret" obsessed mother, perfectly capture their outlook on life. Rebecca may be the leader, and Marc the hesitant voice of reason, but one wishes they were off to the side, and Nicki and Sam placed front and center. Aside from Watson's hilarious valley-girl emptiness, Farmiga makes the biggest impact with a simple scene filled with a shocking level of tension. The sisters may not shoot up any gangsters like the girls in Spring Breakers, but in Sam there are flashes of a more aggressive form of recklessness. It's an inspired touch, but it's ultimately too small in the grand scheme of the film. 

Even Coppola's conclusion proves too simple, despite the well-earned laughs. By the second half, the film seems to grasp that Nicki deserves to be the star of the story, as she feels more complete in her entitlement. Rebecca, by contrast, is just a well-off girl who simply wants to steal. Even when Marc tells us, in voiceover, that Rebecca was the group's leader, it's kind of tough to believe. Watson's presence is simply so much stronger. Her character may be drawn in broad strokes, but she still has more to work with than anyone else. 

This shift in focus leaves The Bling Ring feeling split. The first half feels more like "classic" Coppola, with its sleepier, more casual rhythms. The second half find Coppola sharpening her focus, and actually adapting to the material, rather than trying to force it to adapt to her style. And it's in that second half that The Bling Ring gets around to what it should have started so much earlier: satirizing the level of selfish entitlement of the central characters (as well as the world's generally unhealthy obsession with fame at any cost). Yet even though the film ends with its stronger half, the end result can't help but feel like the product of two very different sides coming together to produce an all-together thin final result, albeit one that does reach some very entertaining, and even hypnotic, highs.

Grade: B-/C+

Friday, June 14, 2013

Review: "Man of Steel"

Director: Zack Snyder
Runtime: 143 minutes

The great irony of Superman's status as a true all-American superhero is that he's not even from our world. As has been pointed out in more than a few essays over the years, Kal-El is a true immigrant from among the superhero pantheon. If anything, his immigrant status is what allows him to best rise to the lofty (and often unreachable) heights of American ideals. It truly takes an otherworldly, yet still characteristically human, figure to save the day, time and time again. The trick with Superman, however, is how much times have changed. Despite the relative levity of the current Marvel franchise, the shadow of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy still looms large over the cinematic landscape. 

Nolan's influence is felt more strongly in Superman's latest outing for obvious reasons. Credited as executive producer and story creator (along with actual screenwriter David Goyer), Nolan has transfered some of his operatic doom and gloom to the world of one of the best known, and more typically upbeat, superhero worlds. Throw in Zack Snyder in the director's chair, and things start making more sense. Snyder's excessive stylization, as contrasted with the Nolan/Goyer method of writing and storytelling, largely balance each other out across Man of Steel, the latest and most epic Superman adventure committed to the silver screen to date.

The approach taken with the new Superman (The Tudors actor Henry Cavill), is a bit of a mash up of the approach that Mr. Nolan used in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. The former was an introduction to a new vision of an iconic character, jumping around in chronology as it transformed Bruce Wayne into Batman for the first time. The Dark Knight, meanwhile, took Begins' foundations and used them to craft a bigger, more epic film, complete with a towering villain who pushed Batman to his very limits. The combination of these two arcs is the source of Man of Steel's greatest strengths and weaknesses.

For the most part, the film is broken up into three parts, beginning with a surprisingly extended sequence detailing the fall of Krypton. Wondrously designed (shades of H.R. Geiger are present), Krypton is on the brink of total destruction after aggressively exploiting its natural resources. Complicating things is a last-second military coup by General Zod (Michael Shannon). The planet's last hope is Jor-El (Russell Crowe), who sends his son off into space as the planet continues to violently fall apart. 

Yet as much time as Krypton gets on screen, Man of Steel moves rather briskly though episodes of Kal-El/Clark Kent's young life. In a refreshing structural choice, Clark's childhood is largely seen through flashbacks, often triggered by small incidents in the adult (and insanely sculpted) Clark's life as a wanderer. On one hand, it lends the film a constant sense of movement. The editing across timelines is often quite slick, keeping the film eventful. The downside is that Goyer's dialogue construction isn't quite as effective as his plot structure. Snyder does his best to overcome this with some Malick-inspired camerawork, and more often than not he succeeds, although just barely.

All the same, Goyer's writing remains a problem across the highly eventful (and never, ever dull) runtime. All other aspects of the film seem so finessed and in control, and it's a shame to see the film occasionally stumble through Goyer's awkward dialogue exchanges. The result is a film that looks great (even with a slightly oppressive blue-grey tint flooding every frame), and is often entertaining, yet still not able to reach its full potential. Moments that should hit hard feel obligatory than genuinely emotional, even as the cast tries their best to make something out of thin material.

Whatever problems Goyer contributes, however, are frequently compensated for by engaging work across the ensemble, and Snyder's relentless storytelling. Cavill, though not given much to say, makes a nice, albeit understated, impression as the titular hero. Rather than make him a blank figure of simplistic patriotism, Cavill's Superman is a man torn between his two identities. Although not given much substance on paper in regards to this dynamic, Cavill does have some nice moments as he struggles to reconcile his split identity (even as some of these scenes end too abruptly). It's not big enough performance to be a true star-making turn, but the handsome actor does prove that he's worthy of donning the (smartly redesigned) iconic outfit and cape. He may not erase Christopher Reeve from anyone's memory, but as a more forlorn, wary Superman, he fits right in with the Nolan-ized aesthetic of the film. 

More outwardly engaging is Amy Adams as Lois Lane. Though Superman does save her several times, Man of Steel's treatment of the character is refreshing. She's not just a spunky reporter who stands up to her boss. Rather, she's a journalist willing to go to great lengths to get what she wants. And, later in the game, she even plays a pivotal role in devising a plan to help stop Zod. And speaking of Zod, Michael Shannon deserves his share of credit for crafting a villain with a mix of bug-eyed fervor and understandable drive. His mentality may be inflexible, yet there is a (rather dark) logic to Shannon's character and performance that fits in with the mythology of the dying world of Krypton. His will is to ensure the survival of his race, no matter the cost. He may pose a threat to the humanity, but his destruction isn't just for kicks: it's to save a proud race that is sitting at death's door.

The real surprise of the film, however, are Superman's two fathers. The first 20 minutes of the film are basically a mini-action movie for Mr. Crowe, and he lends his role a palpable, but never overbearing, level of gravitas befitting of an alien lord. On the other end of the spectrum is Kevin Costner as Clark's Earth-bound father. Though he isn't afforded much screen time, Costner (along with Diane Lane as his wife) brings a comforting, low-key presence to the role. Despite Superman's foreign origins, his relationship with his adoptive parents is where his true character comes from. Thanks to Costner and Lane, that character rings true when it's displayed on screen.

And even as Goyer's script underwhelms, Snyder manages some stirring moments as a director, even though the impact is largely visceral, rather than emotional. Often criticized as prizing style over substance (to an extreme), Man of Steel isn't exactly a huge detour into hard-hitting character work. However, jarring product placement aside, the film does show Snyder as capable of effective self-control. Rather than become a slave to comic book frames (as he did in his adaptation of Watchmen), his imagery is energetic and muscular, resulting in an impressive, if exhausting, visual assault. Aiding him the whole way is a tremendous score from Dark Knight composer Hans Zimmer. Alternating between thunderous horns and delicate pianos, Zimmer creates a perfect compliment to Superman's humble humanity, as well as his larger-than-life abilities.  

It might have initially seemed tired to show Superman's origins again. Bryan Singer's Superman Returns, didn't even bother with them (or Clark's childhood). Yet in laying such an extensive groundwork and mythology, the Snyder/Goyer/Nolan trio has created a rich new world for Superman to explore. Though the film's structure suggests rich themes and then jumps too quickly through them, the film does stick the landing in enough moments. It may not have an element as galvanizing as Heath Ledger's Joker, or as charismatic as Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark, but Man of Steel and Mr. Cavill are certainly worthy of taking Superman into the 21st century. Superman Returns was too simple and reverential for modern audiences, while Man of Steel flies at warp speed into the future. And, despite some turbulence, this is a Superman film that truly flies, even if it struggles to completely soar to new heights. 

Grade: B