Movie Reviews: Man of Steel, The Conjuring, The Purge, We're The Millers

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 6.03% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

I’m feeling rather strung out and fragile today, but I have been watching a lot of movies thanks to my flu.  And RedBox.  When you need to watch a bunch of crappy movies right away, RedBox is my drug of choice.
Man Of Steel
I like the pitch of the movie, and I like the way the movie did it, but I don’t like the movie.
No, it is too much, lemme sum up.
The pitch of the movie was, “What if we forgot the Superman legacy at all, and just treated it like a First Contact film where the aliens could all knock over cities?”  And from that perspective, Man of Steel is actually pretty insanely great.  I love the way Zac Snyder said, “No slo-mo – everything happens at Kryptonian speed” so that we could sense the terrifying blur of super-powered fighting.  I loved the disaster porn.  I loved the battle sequences.
But as a Superman film, it didn’t satisfy me.
The problem is that the movie pretends to be about humanity, but humanity is either absent or dickish.  If we take Lois out of the equation, humans are a bunch of narrow-minded thugs who should be hurled into the sun at the first available opportunity.  And then they die in record numbers, as basically when you see Metropolis collapsing there’s been no warning bell, just buildings toppling over.  It’s clear (even if not shown) that millions are dying.
And Superman’s not really concerned about them.  That’s grim and gritty, yes – he’s got Kryptonians on his gail – but it also removes a main modus operandi of Superman, which is that he’s really deepy concerned about the ordinary guy.  The movie makes stabs at that characterization, but we don’t see anyone we can root for (except arguably Lois and definitely the army guy with the knife), leaving it in this weird botch where the only humans Superman meets are ingrateful dicks, they’re dying in record numbers, and Superman’s only concerned about this small group of three people near the end.
As a first contact movie?  Sure.  But Superman’s big S carries a little heft to it, and while I’m fine with interpretations, this one didn’t gel for me.  To me, this felt like a novel that needed one or two more drafts – a few positive interactions with humans to show us why Kal-El treasured people, a few attempts to save people in mid-fight before realizing that, sadly, the best tactic was to let Metropolis crash until he could get rid of the Kryptonians.
It was a better movie than I thought it would be.  But the message was muddled, and I don’t know if Kal-El is anyone worth contrasting to Batman at this point.
The Conjuring
I usually don’t like horror movies because most horror movies suck.
Which is not to say this is different from most other movies – most dramas suck, most action movies suck, most comedies suck – but when horror movies suck, they suck in a way that sickens me.  When you treat people like walking blood bags to be popped, it makes it seem like slaughtering people is somehow a good or entertaining thing.  Which isn’t to say that there’s not a pleasure in watching awful things happen, but the sadistic bent of creating poorly-made characters only to saw their limbs off is a failure mode I’m not entertained by.
The Conjuring, however, is a nice change-of-pace.  It’s a very slow movie to start – basically, the first half an hour is establishing a pretty normal family doing the normal family stuff of moving into a house.  There’s no real Character-Establishing Moment, but rather a nice series of small interactions that makes you feel like hey, these guys are affable neighbors, complete with very realistic-feeling kids and parents.
Then creepy stuff starts happening.  This isn’t gore-porn – it’s the kind of reality-twister stuff popularized by The Ring, and when the scares come they’re far between and very memorable.  It’s the kind of film that’s not afraid to set up normality so when the world spins off its axis, we do feel terror – not squick, an entirely separate emotion, but the terror that we thought we knew the rules and holy crap we do not.
It’s a little film of modest scope, and maybe it’s a small ballpark, but goddamn if it doesn’t hit a home run.
The Purge
The Purge, on the other hand, is the bad kind of horror movie.  It has a killer concept: once a year, for twelve hours, you can commit whatever crime you want.  This cathartic killing (and implied culling of the poor) allows America to be strong the rest of the year.
Realistic?  No.  First thing people would do would be to say, “Well, if you kill your boss you’re fired,” and social implications would be back again.  And as Gini pointed out, it’s not like the “You splurge once a month!” diet works for most people in real life.
Still, there’s a compelling core here of what happens to “normal” people when they’re expected to be placed in a life-or-death situation once a year, and all the issues of class and race and family fractures, and… The Purge doesn’t really know what to do with all of that.  It swings wildly, coming close to making a statement on, say, how we treat the homeless, but then doesn’t punctuate it.  People have urges to kill almost at random, without conceptualizing the aftereffects (“I want my girlfriend’s dad to approve of our marriage, so I’ll shoot him dead in front of her!  That will win her heart!”), and then slaughter out of random greed.
What we wind up with is a disjointed Die Hard where we’re rooting for nobody in particular.  This is the kind of movie I favor remakes for; George Romero in his prime would have served this rich meat up in wondrous ways.  Surely there’s someone better suited.
We’re The Millers
It’s a reasonably funny comedy, but comedy is kind of easy to do.  It’s easy to have funny moments, as Despicable Me 2 did.  What’s hard is doing the business of hooking those funny moments up to a plot that people care about.
And We’re The Millers is like a predatory plot, feeding on our deep-seated needs.  Are we shown four loners who can’t function in life?  Well, if we throw these arbitrary personalities into a box, we want a family.  We need a family.  We crave seeing them come together to become a unit.  And I don’t know where that desire springs from, if it’s genetic or something in American culture or just our own internal loneliness leads us to crave family structures… but We’re The Millers knows this is what we crave, and shoves us in that direction where the fake family becomes the real family, and that provides a depth to what would otherwise be a pretty disjointed comedy.
This is the movie where I finally got some overdue respect for Jennifer Aniston.  I didn’t like Friends all that much (which is ironic, considering Friends has all the same flaws that now plague How I Met Your Mother), and her prissy tabloid portrayals in the wake of Brad Pitt haven’t helped.  But after seeing her in Horrible Bosses and now this, I have to admit she not only has some damn fine comedy chops, but a willingness to go with whatever works to make the scene work.  It’s the Barry Manilow moment where I may not always like the end result, but I gotta respect the ethic of the guy making it.
 

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