I don’t want to say it’s been a while since I’ve shot out a regular spurt of reviews, but January’s John Ford retrospective is far back enough to consider it a minute and I don’t think it’s for nothing that I was able to shoot back-to-back-to-back reviews each day because all 7 movies I brought up were five-star masterpieces in my eyes. And I do recall way back a few years back in June teasing out a revisit of several of my favorite movies that had not yet been reviewed in a vein somewhat similar to 25 for 25 but not as demanding…
… and that was June 2019, a year that probably saw my least activity on this site, and all I had to show in that month was Raiders of the Lost Ark.
No matter, I am feeling somewhat good about trying to swing into it in this upcoming month. Like I am ready to just slot a good amount of time just to gush about whatever favorite movies I wanted to write about for a minute here and just talk about five-star movies. And my birth month is such a terrible reminder of the fact that I exist that it was no surprise I set it 25 for 25 there or that I was wanted to shoot for it again this upcoming month.
So that’s how it is: this coming June, I am set and slated to write about a major amount of my favorite movies. A review for the ones I definitely feel I missed and a couple of mulligans even that I feel were long overdue since I wasn’t too satisfied or exhausted by the previous review. Below is, in roughly scheduled order which may change, the titles of the reviews to come. Feel free to take a guess at what movie they may be.
Do you know anything about witches?*
All Work and No Play Makes Jacques a Dull Boy
Come, It Is Time to Keep Your Appointment with…
La Vie Boheme
Sic Transit Gloria
Sometimes, We Just Need the Eggs.
The Difference Between a Hawk and a Crop-duster
The Front Page
You Belong to the City
Tale of Tales
Everybody Has Their Reasons.
Positively the Same Dame
Every Leaf. Every Ray of Light.
A Night at the Opera
We’ll Always Have Paris
La Pucelle de Lorraine*
At the Fair
A Day in the Life or Three *Asterisked are the mulligans
With the possibility of some others if I find the time, but these twenty are definitely coming. They’re coming next month. Be prepared.
And just to prime… previous reviews of my favorites that were covered:
I’m not certain there’s a movie from the 2010s about which I have grappled so much more than Man of Steel. I’ve seen it about 5 times in the time since it premiered in the summer of 2013, almost all of which took place within those last two years of my time as a film school undergrad (2013-’14) for various social reasons. Which in some ways makes me grateful that I’ve waited so long to finally drop a review proper ’round these parts, which could have gone either way between mutedly negative or mutedly neutral throughout the years. I don’t know what switch was flipped in me during my rewatch of Zack Snyder’s Superman movies back in March (in anticipation of HBOMax’s release of the long-murmured-about Snyder Cut for 2017’s Justice League), but it moved me to strong positivity.
It might be retrospect on where popcorn cinema went in the past 5 years, particularly superhero blockbusters muting their personality. In 2013, after the ill-advised attempt at feminism that was Sucker Punch, a Zack Snyder picture was the most unappealing concept for me. A Zack Snyder Superman – especially in the wake of the massive misread of one of my favorite works of literature, comic book or otherwise, Watchmen – was the most unappealing concept for me. And sure enough, the resultant picture is emblematic of Snyder’s indulgences as filtered by the grounded atmosphere of the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight trilogy, sharing the unreliable David S. Goyer as co-writer and Nolan, Emma Thomas, and Charles Roven in the producers’ slate with Snyder’s regular producing partner Deborah. Those indulgences being slow-motion, color timing that drains the color away, and a sense of sound and fury that rivals Michael Bay.
Well, frankly the last few years have made me hungry for indulgent blockbusters, with that 800-lb gorilla that is Disney outlawing any semblance of individual personality in their output. I mean this review as a one of a trilogy documenting my “come to Jesus” moment with Snyder’s Superman trilogy. So in spite of all the mean things I just said above and the grievances I do still have with Man of Steel as a picture, I come to praise the film and not bury it.
Starting with its best foot forward: the origin story of Superman begins with his birth on Krypton, portrayed as a pulp science fiction planet with flying Avatar dragons and floating Meteora-esque mountains above the clouds bronzed-up just well enough to feel like it comes from the mind of the director of 300 (though cinematographer Amir Mokri thankfully doesn’t embalm the soaring visuals with that heavy color. One sequence during this prologue leans marine in color). Sober scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) is explaining to the High Council the environmental doom that Krypton is headed for, but his meeting conflicts with the coup that militant General Zod (Michael Shannon) is executing on that same day, barging in to kill every council member in the room and insisting on Jor-El’s allegiance. Instead, Jor-El retrieve the genetic codex by which Kryptonian children are bred and hides it within the same escape pod through which he ejects his naturally birthed son, Kal-El, prior to Zod’s imprisonment after the coup has failed and Krypton’s inevitable destruction.
From here, we watch through fractured chronology largely driven by the investigation of journalist Lois Lane (Amy Adams) trying to find out who is this mysterious man (Henry Cavill) that continuously shows up to perform feats of bravery and mercy all ’round North America through physical marvels like holding a collapsing oil tanker in hellish heat long enough for the workers to escape. We learn expectedly that this is the same Kal-El, found in the pod by farmers Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane) in Smallville, Kansas and raised as Clark Kent. And I think it’s in this Rockwellian vision of Midwest Americana that Snyder and Goyer excel. As Clark (who is portrayed as a child by Cooper Timberline and a teenager by Dylan Sprayberry) comes to learn the hard way that he’s not like other kids with his superhuman abilities like x-ray vision and incredible strength and speed, director and writer go all the way in communicating how depressed and alone this kid may be as his parents do what they can to ground him back to these earthy roots.
‘Round the time of Man of Steel‘s initial release, a lot of the criticism was to the treatment of Superman as something to be wary of, distanced in his godhood rather than a light to aspire to, like he is at his most beloved Golden and Silver Age comic book incarnations (there is another major criticism that we will discuss later on). And while I get the criticism, I’ve always found it a bit too closed-off towards a new approach to the character. We have the bright and optimistic Superman of the comics in Richard Donner’s 1987 Superman, which lest we forget is both one of my favorite comic book performances and my favorite live-action comic book movie. If you need THAT Superman, it’s available. Even when I was not a fan of Man of Steel, I found its decision to wonder “how would it feel to discover you are not of this world?” and to engage it in sincere melancholy to be genuinely interesting, even if Mokri and Snyder go a bit overboard on the color correction. Despite that color timing, they find ways to frame Timberline, Sprayberry, and Cavill in emptiness so that the shots can do double duty in making him larger-than-life but also profoundly isolated, amplifying that emotional uncertainty and discomfort so that one could argue Cavill’s lack of footing as the titular man of steel feels more appropriate to the journey Snyder and Goyer set out for him.
Just as appealing to me is the way that Snyder and Mokri openly ape Terrence Malick just as much as Nolan in their loving shots of wheat fields within that Kent farm that Clark would call his home and with such warm visuals, we understand how that’d be the case too. Malick-inspired movies are about a dime a dozen these days and I’m normally not fond of them (heck, we literally awarded Best Picture and Director Oscars to a Malick rip-off last month), but somehow Snyder’s diving into such a mode with full-on worship that bows its head towards nature similarly to Days of Heaven is very much impressive. Meanwhile, the Kent parents providing Clark with a bit more conflicted and morally dubious suggestions on what would make their son safe rather than fulfill his destiny as a protector of humanity which Costner and Lane successfully deliver as “parents trying their best to help and failing” rather than “adults who would rather see kids die in a bus crash”. Crowe, for his part, shapes this further by playing Superman’s birth father as clearly someone proud and invested in his child’s future but approaches it with chilly scientific interest in stone-faced delivery, like a more matter-of-factly Atticus Finch, and it pushes us to prefer the Kents as figures without disliking Jor-El.
I have made it about 1100 words in spending most of my time on the arguably the first third of the movie, largely because in my eyes… the first third of the movie is perfect. It sets up that grandiosity, that vulnerability, that humanity that makes Man of Steel feel so much more personal and engaged as a story of one guy realizing exactly what he has to be marvelously. But I have no illusions about Man of Steel being perfect and there did come a point in my rewatch where I had to acknowledge “OK, yes, this is why I wasn’t a big fan at first”. It creeps in slowly as the primary external conflict – General Zod’s arrival to Earth seeking conquest, which to Goyer’s credit, ties in well to Clark’s journey to Superman – interrupts Superman’s internal conflict with menace and the threat of 2010s popcorn cinema’s biggest bane, CGI explosion extravaganzas that have not an ounce of the quiet intensity that the Smallville sequences had.
And of course, those sequences pop their ugly head in and take up more space until the climax of Man of Steel turns out to be a colorless gray battle in the ruins of a city that brought up that second famous criticism of the movie, its ostensible lack of concern for collateral damage and the well-being of others (which we will indulge Snyder’s infamous response to on my next review). It not only deals with effects work that hasn’t aged nearly as well as we hoped (though certainly a good amount still survives), but it demolishes the structure of the movie as somehow Goyer determined that Superman vs. Zod was a second feature’s worth of material and added unnecessary further acts and it becomes the obvious point where Warner Bros. as a studio truly mandated Man of Steel resemble as much as any other loud and addle-brained summer blockbuster, especially that there Avengers movie except make it the dark version.
But it is not all bad: we get to witness a morbid vision of Earth as preferred by Zod, ostensibly action movie moments like Lois and Superman escaping Zod’s ship or Superman engaging the World Engine that actually lend themselves to further play with the classic Superman imagery (even if it is still annoying that Zack Snyder had conflated it with Jesus Christ imagery), and the most controversial moment of Snyder’s Superman ever really is one that I think plays extremely well in this character arc.
Most of all, I’ve saved the best element for last and it’s really telling that the weaker the movie gets, the more bravura it is to carry Man of Steel to the finish line. I am speaking of course of Hans Zimmer’s score for the film, which had already done brilliant work in the first few acts subtly seeding itself within the comforts of Clark’s upbringing but once we see him in the red and blue suit for the very first time… Zimmer’s compositions function as practically an ignition to the movie’s best sequence and the climax to all that wonderful character work it was doing trying to get Superman to become THE Superman, his first flight across the globe at high-speeds where Zimmer’s strings and horns soar along with him and feel so eager and elevating in their stirring bombast that we are right there with Cavill, rising in the skies and excited by our potentials. I wouldn’t dare call it superior to John Williams’ iconic march but it is a lot closer of a race than it has any right to be, possibly Zimmer’s career-best work (barring The Thin Red Line) and certainly a miracle of making us believe a man can fly just as the 1987 picture did.
As far as Zimmer carries Man of Steel, it turns out it doesn’t need to carry the movie all the way to the finish line. The final beats of the movie collect itself from all the brainless colorless anti-spectacle quickly enough to tie off the places Snyder, Goyer, and company all brought their new vision of Superman to and earn a sense of optimism to its final dialogue exchange that feel consistent with what we have seen (in fact, that same dialogue exchange makes me grin like a lunatic every time in its obviousness). Which just goes to remind us of where Snyder’s Superman comes from: it’s no less a figure of hope than Christopher Reeve’s beloved Boy Scout, just one that finds itself working harder to get there. Sure, this is a sad Superman, a depressed Superman even, but he is not a miserable Superman as all the biggest critics of the movie seem to claim and it took me a long minute to recognize that while it is cautious about a man of tomorrow standing among the people of Earth with a sense of apprehension and disbelief and distrust about the character’s presence, it is still no less awestruck at the miracle of him and gives exactly the sort of grand scope that such a character demands, just from a different perspective than we expected. A perspective that felt like the first step in Snyder becoming a lot more agreeable as a storyteller.
Probably my biggest regret of this past Sundance 2021 was not finding the time or ability to review even a single one of the multiple features I saw during that single week (though I am glad I was able to cover the short films selections), until far enough since the end of the festival that there was no relevance or point anymore. Maybe I can turn that around as they are wide released stateside, especially as it would give me a chance to refresh movies that were already fading by the time I could sit down and write again.
But one movie didn’t fade all that much. One movie, above all others, stayed embedded in my mind as I kept turning around it over and over until it finally got its expected release here (one of the movies that already had a distributor before it arrived to Sundance). And that was Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth, which heralded a return to form for Wheatley that rivals his early greatness (barring Happy New Year, Colin Burstead, which is my only gap among his features as it’s not yet released in the US).
In fact, it’s a movie that most feels in line with A Field in England, his 2013 rural period-based psychological hallucination that I frankly was not as impressed on first viewing with, but I do feel like I’d revisit with newfound appreciation in its untethered atmospheric madness. That movie begins with a sense of distance brought by its time setting and dreamy black-and-white and minimalist production design, In the Earth starts way differently. Its starting point is in fact extremely relatable to a viewer in early 2021, set in the middle of what is not identified as the COVID-19 pandemic but sounds eerily similar from how it’s discussed in dialogue (as one of several movies developed and produced during it) as scientist Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) prepares to move further beyond a unnamed government outpost into its neighboring forest with a local park guide Alma (Ellora Torchia). And if I’m being honest, that “a virus is happening” starting point may pull the viewer into the world but it’s also not particularly a committed element and the more In the Earth follows Martin and Alma through the woods… the less we have that virus as an urgent element. There’s more pressing matters to worry about.
The central matter is something I wouldn’t want to spoil, for a lot of In the Earth is trying to get us lulled into the rhythm of a quiet isolated trek through the woods – perfect for a film production made at a time where few people should be in close proximity to each other – and then have that violently swerved into something we couldn’t imagine. And Nick Gillespie’s soft photography of the oppressive greenery and shade does phenomenal work laying a tired shadow to Martin and Alma’s hike, seeking out Martin’s former colleague Dr. Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires) and getting more and more nervous as they run into abandoned tents and a random habitant of the forest Zach (Reece Shearsmith) who gives off a plenty irregular enough vibe to make us prepped for something bad to happen.
Well, this IS a horror movie so something bad happens. And Wheatley’s work as his own editor does so much to make the bad things interrupting the slow-running expedition truly feel discombobulated by the later shifts it takes, inviting us to expect some contagion-set Blair Witch material what with Alma’s explanation of an folklore by the name of Parnag Fegg and campfire lit sequences taking up the first third. But In the Earth is headed towards something more eagerly aggressive in its aesthetic that Gillespie (who at one point of heightened disorientation and terror utilizes diagetic bright strobe lighting that makes this impossible to tough for the photosensitive but for myself I found absolutely thrilling), Wheatley, and the soundtrack (eager to bring us aware of how impossible it is to truly have quiet in the woods, your isolation surrounded by rustling and chirps) all crank up with enough measurement to give the kaleidoscopic indulgences a true sense of climax by the final moments.
Arguably the only constant to In the Earth‘s shifts is Clint Mansell’s droning score which fits smoothly into the preceding worshipful nature footage and slides into the abstract madness that lives deeper and deeper in the runtime. The closest I’m willing to provide as a plot spoiler (and frankly something easy to predict with that plot summary) is how Squires and Shearsmith’s arrival on screen truly marks the moment things change gears. The two actors together are contradictory guides to the narrative context of what weirdness Wheatley and his crew throw at our face, both grounded in their own awe of the invisible cosmic horror atmosphere. Shearsmith, absolutely unrecognizable to me from the few previous works I’ve seen him in (his prior collaborations with Wheatley, Doctor Who), resembles what I’d expect a dark version of a Taika Waititi performance while Squires carries the concept of hard science-fiction and procedural to the uncertain tension surrounding them.
So basically Alma begins as our guide into the woods, but really this movie slips away from her control and ours. It belongs to Ben Wheatley finally finding himself back in the zone of surprise horror scenarios that he always did best flexing between Kill List, Sightseers, and A Field in England. I’m sure the past few years of him getting more of a budget to play with have been satisfying to get out of his system, but they didn’t result in very interesting or good movies. Sometimes all a person needs is a few humans, a vast space, and a limitless collection of sounds and filters to truly show us something terrifying. Looks like Wheatley and his crew made the most out of little.