Watching the bewildering cycles and recycles of the cinema’s comic-book superhero sagas, it is hard not to think you’re at a Samuel Beckett play. “Begin again, Marvel. Begin again, DC. It is finished. It is not finished. It is over. It is only re-commencing … ” Man of Steel, re-begetting the Superman story on screen, follows close on the recent rebirths of the Batman and Spider-Man franchises and is produced by Dark Knight/Batman director Christopher Nolan. But if the bat and spider heroes seem still to have a little reel life left in them, Man of Steel – two and a half hours of overblown banality wittering on into tedium and oblivion – is more like crap’s last tape.
There are special effects in your face, your eyes, your hair (yes, it’s in 3D). There are throw-everything-at-them computer graphics. There is a stellar cast that should have prepared us for the best. Instead, in a script devoid of wit, drama or development, let alone a new spin on an old fantasy universe, the stars turn into black holes before our eyes: Russell Crowe as Jor-El, Superman’s Krypton father, Kevin Costner as his Kansas foster dad, Amy Adams as Lois Lane, Michael Shannon gurning away as evil General Zog, Krypton’s fallen angel falling like a ton of rocks on Metropolis. The “final showdown” lasts what seems most of the movie. An hour or more of sky-zooming biffings and bashings over building tops, plus a few 9/11-ish vistas – so tactful, so sensitive – of zapped or blown-up skyscrapers in slow, curtsying dust-descent.
Director Zack Snyder made the groundbreaking 300 but has since reverted to mere ground-shaking. Watchmen was seismic but shapeless; Man of Steel is a juggernaut juggering away for nought. The film diminishes good actors to mere text-reciters – Russell Crowe reads his lines like a man competing in a Phone-Book Recital Contest – and reduces not-so-good actors (Henry Immortals Cavill as Superman) to mechanoid hunks obeying invisible speech balloons. In the last scene Snyder sets us up for Man of Steel 2 by having Cavill appear, briefly and for the first time, as Clark Kent, gauche, bumbling, would-be droll. We look. We gape in despair. We weep a too-late tear for Christopher Reeve.
Amazingly – this is cinema, land of surprises – in the same week as Man of Steel a small miracle emerges from the comic-book movie’s industrial work zone. The Hollywood project conference must have gone like this.
Studio execs: “You are Joss Whedon, creative brains behind yesterday’s popular TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and today’s Avengers franchise, the mother of mega-hits. You are free, Joss, to write your next cheque. Make it a big one. What would you like to do?”
Joss Whedon: “A modern-dress version of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, in my back garden in black and white with a cast of unknowns.”
Collapse of corporate jaws. Collapse of Tinseltown civilisation as we know it. Whatever next? James Cameron asks to film the plays of Racine on his mobile phone? Steven Spielberg wants to make the Oresteia with his next-door neighbours and a box Brownie?
Folie de modestie; blockbuster director’s backyard Bard bid; call it what you will, this reviewer knows what to call it. Heaven on a screen. Whedon used to have actor friends around in the evenings, apparently, to read Shakespeare plays on a casual, clam-bake basis. One day they turned up and there were lights, cameras and the call of “Action!”
You cannot turn an Ingres violin into a full, working orchestra? Oh yes, you can. This Much Ado is a stupefying triumph. As if in a maxillary Mexican wave, the dropped jaws have travelled from the studio office to us, the audience. After one awkward moment, when the dark-suited Mafia-ish guys and party-frocked gals in the Bel Air villa first start speechifying in iambics, all is easy, agile, exhilarating wordplay. This Beatrice (Amy Acker) and this Benedick (Alexis Denisof) are very funny conducting their prideful, rapier badinage. The Claudio/Hero plot – the wedding vowers fouled by a wedding-eve calumny – is done with such brisk éclat that Whedon should teach “economy of effect” at the Royal Shakespeare Company. The clownish policemen Dogberry and Verges (Nathan Fillion, Tom Lenk), so often overplayed to gussy up Shakespeare’s (perceived) lackwit low comedy, are downplayed here as dumdum LA cops – bird brains in bad suits – and are hysterical. Clearly Bill got the Bill right after all. Certainly Whedon has done.
Maybe the achievement isn’t that bewildering. You cannot be a complete idiot if you write postmodern vampirism into the TV suggestions book (Buffy), floor the pedal skilfully for Speed (Whedon’s script) and later concoct the gonzo Pirandellianism of The Cabin in the Woods. Now is the time for Hollywood to pay Whedon a large sum of transfer money and start him working on Man of Steel 2.
When you see “Paradise” in a title, reach for the desalination tablets. A large pinch of salt, or mocking cynicism, is almost certainly intended. Austrian auteur Ulrich Seidl’s praised-by-some Paradise trilogy – Faith and Hope soon to follow this first film – co-opts the heavenly word for no reason I can perceive but to make rude noises at it. Paradise: Love is about middle-aged western women getting toyboy action in an African beach resort where local males “do it” for money.
Moralists and the missionarily inclined will go “Tsk, tsk, how degrading.” That seems to be Seidl’s attitude, though he sidles up to it archly and pruriently. Dumpy midlife divorcee Teresa (Margarethe Tiesel) pursues two successive beach boys who turn out to be – surprise – more interested in lucre than love. The script releases the hackneyed barbs about racism and colonialism. “The trouble is I can’t tell them apart” says one woman (of the locals). The phrase “Hakuna matata” joins the verbal jollifications, to prove you can’t take Disney out the westerner’s African gaze. The awfulness of every character – this film has a simple agenda – is demonstrated in the climactic ensemble scene of the humiliation of a black male stripper at a hotel hen night.
At least we’re not preached at it in Admission. Or if we are, Tina Fey enables us to weather the finger-wagging. It means well too, this meandering romcom about a Princeton admissions officer (Fey) wooed by a hippyish schoolteacher (Paul Rudd) attempting a scam to finesse a pupil into the Ivy League. Academic standards? Entrance evaluations? What are they? What are they based on? The themes are important, even if in this Hollywood laundering they are sloshed about in love suds and clattered by uneven comedy spins.
I Am Nasrine is the art house end of the silly season spectrum. Right-on in its messaging – the story of a police-harassed Iranian girl fleeing her country after unjust arrest and assault – it is as dull as slogan paint in execution. Nasrine (Micsha Sadeghi) reaches Newcastle, England, where misogyny, sexism and violence are once again rife and turned a blind eye to. The UK is little better than Ayatollah-land, socially and culturally, says director Tina Gharavi. Thanks for letting us know; I think I’ll stay in the UK.