Boy, Superman really needs to lighten up

Cert 12a | By Steve Dinneen
Three Stars

When it comes right down to it, Superman just isn’t a very good comic book character. He’s boring. He doesn’t have a dark, angsty side like Batman. He isn’t a wise-cracking alcoholic like Iron Man. He doesn’t have a super power – he has ALL the super powers. Super-human strength? Yup. Laser eyes? Sure. X-ray vision? Of course.

Screen adaptations of the caped crusader, with the possible exception of the super-camp 1978 Christopher Reeve one, have been uniformly awful. What do you do with a character who can’t be killed, and whose nemesis is a bald bloke who is good with numbers?
Man of Steel director Zack Snyder is at pains to distance his movie from the previous iterations. Mentioning the S-word is strictly forbidden. Look at the film title: no S-word there. When Lois Lane (played like an irritating student politician by Amy Adams) is about to suggest maybe Clark Kent should call himself Sup… An alarm goes off.

Neither is there much evidence of Superman’s bumbling cub-reporter alter-ego (you know, the one who likes to strip down to his pants in phone boxes). Instead we’re subjected to a young Kent who spends his days moping between grim fishing villages. And boy does he mope. Snyder’s Superman, played by Henry Cavill, is one miserable guy, especially for someone who is, by some distance, the most powerful being on the planet, impossibly handsome and ridiculously ripped.

Man of Steel has far more in common with Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy than any of the fluffier action-comedy Marvel franchises, which isn’t that surprising, given Nolan produces and co-writes.

It gets off to a brisk start, with Superman’s home world in the midst of an ecological crisis that is about to destroy the entire solar system. Superman’s dad (Russell Crowe) manages to blast his infant son off to earth just before it all goes completely pear-shaped. It’s a decent opening – a nice change from the “alien baby crashes in Kansas” origin story that usually precedes Superman yarns.

We’re also introduced to Michael Shannon’s General Zod, the alien military leader who is the single best thing about the entire movie. His confrontations with a grown-up Superman are gripping, and the CGI fight sequences feel satisfyingly weighty.

The problem is, it’s just too damn serious. Even the ultra-serious Christian Bale gives an occasional knowing wink to camera when he’s putting on his bat costume. Cavill doesn’t seem to have it in him. After 143 minutes I just wanted someone to tell a joke.

Cert 12A | By Simon Thomson
Three Stars

ADMISSION is far from a great movie, but if your emotionally remote, academic boyfriend of 10 years has just left you for a Virginia Woolf scholar, then it would be the perfect thing to slip into the DVD player as you climb on to your couch and into a tub of maple-pecan triple-ripple ice cream.

Portia Nathan (Tina Fey) is an admissions officer at Princeton responsible for sifting through the applications of thousands of would-be students, scrabbling for a place in the Ivy League. Her safe, boring life is upended when she is contacted by an idealistic teacher from an unconventional school. The peripatetic John Pressman (Paul Rudd) has a gifted student who – despite his underprivileged background – would like to attend Princeton, and who might just be the son that Portia secretly gave up for adoption while she was in college.

The film is over-long and wildly uneven, eschewing many of the conventions of the romantic comedy, before panicking and trying to fit them all in to the last 15 minutes. It can’t decide if it’s an emotional drama or a comedy, and it is never especially funny. However, it overcomes these problems with likeable characters and charismatic performances from the two leads, which it seems to be obligatory to describe as “heart-warming.”

Cert 15 | By Simon Thomson
Four Stars

STUCK in Love is a mature, emotionally acute family drama about the complexities of being in love. But that sounds rather forbidding, so it’s being described as a “romantic comedy” in the film’s promotional material.

First-time writer-director Josh Boone has crafted a satisfying story that is indie but seldom arch. It revolves around the loves of three members of the literary Borgens family: celebrated novelist Bill (Greg Kinnear), and his children, the promiscuous college student Samantha (Lily Collins), and socially inhibited teen Rusty (Nat Wolff). Years after his divorce, Bill is unable to move on, still believing that his ex-wife, Erica (Jennifer Connelly), will come back to him. Convinced that attachment can only lead to pain, Samantha resists the romantic advances of her nice-guy classmate Louis (Logan Lerman). And Rusty is head-over-heals when he hooks up with popular girl Kate (Liana Liberato).

All of them are, as the title would have it, Stuck in Love. But while romantic love takes the foreground, the very believable familial relationships – where love persists, even through betrayal and hatred – are what raise this film above the ordinary.

Collins is excellent in a uniformly good cast. So is Kinnear, who balances world-weariness with optimism in his most humane performance to date.

The film’s literary milieu allows for a delightful cameo in the closing moments. It doesn’t need to rely on gimmicks, though – Stuck in Love has real heart.

Cert 15 | By Simon Thomson
One Star

SUMMER in February aspires to revive the quality film-making seen in Merchant Ivory’s adaptations of EM Forster, but merely raises a corpse, shuffling ponderously from the tedious to the embarrassing, without ever grasping the wit or pathos that made those films so vital.

Equestrian painter AJ Munnings is one of a colony of artists living in Devon on the eve of the First World War, and he is a genius. He must be, because despite a total lack of evidence, the other characters repeat it endlessly.

If Munnings is remembered at all today, it is for a speech he gave decrying modernism, and announcing that he had conspired with Winston Churchill to physically assault Picasso. Sadly, nothing so interesting happens here. Instead, Munnings – played by Dominic Cooper as a nastier, tweedier version of his character in Tamara Drewe – is introduced as a racist pub bore. AJ’s best friend is the turgid estate manager Captain Gilbert Evans, played by housewives’ favourite Dan Stevens as a lifeless echo of his character from Downton Abbey. When Florence Carter-Wood (Emily Browning) arrives from London, her doe-eyes and breathless indecision result in a passionless love triangle.

Although the characters in Summer in February are based on real people, they are ciphers; their actions simultaneously motiveless and predictable in a way that makes them utterly unsympathetic. The cheap TV movie aesthetics would have seemed anachronistic in the early ‘90s, and the occasional, jarring full frontal nudity will be too much for people who like horsey melodrama, and too little for people who don’t.