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Review – Man of Steel

After Christopher Nolan’s hugely successful Batman trilogy, it’s safe to say that superhero reboots are all the rage, with The Incredible HulkThe Amazing Spider-Man and now Man of Steel following in its wake. The interesting thing here is that DC and Marvel reboots seem to be doing slightly different things (although that’s something to touch on in more detail in another piece), and Man of Steel, even compared to another DC character reboot (Batman Begins), does different things to that, which makes it one of the more interesting (and if other critical reception is anything to go by more polarising) superhero reboots of the last few years.

Before going into anything else about the film though, I feel like special mention needs to be given to the visual effects. While Snyder is known for his… Extravagant visual style, here it’s at its best, and perhaps least detrimental to the story. From the planet of Krypton, to watching its chosen son fly and fight among the stars, it’s one of the most visually stunning films I’ve seen in years, and it genuinely took my breath away.

We all know the story of Man of Steel, it’s a Superman origin story, although by not discussing the story at all, that does lead me to mention where it succeeds and fails as a reboot. All reboots are origin stories to an extent, whether it’s simply the first act of the film (as it is in The Amazing Spider-Man) or the entire film is an origin story (as it is with Batman Begins), but what Man of Steel does differently is by ingraining the origin elements – Clark’s discoveries of his powers – into the story via flashbacks. Now, we still see young Kal-El being sent to Earth courtesy of an excellent prologue sequence on a dying Krypton, one of the highlights of the film, both for its stunning design and visual effects, and the deliciously villainous Michael Shannon as General Zod, squaring of against Russell Crowe’s Jor-El (although the gratuitous overuse of Superman’s iconography does begin to grate). Now, these flashbacks are something of a mixed bag. Sometimes they’re prompted by a line of dialogue, so they can be jarring, which almost creates the illusion that they’re bad for the pace (although the film feels faster than it’s two hour plus running time, in spite of an overly extended and problematic third act) of the film, although it’s certainly an interesting attempt to avoid the structure of most reboots/origin stories, and it mostly succeeds.

David S. Goyer, the scribe for Nolan’s Batman films, does a solid job here, particularly in terms of world-building and making this characterisation of the eponymous hero a little edgier and more interesting. In flashbacks we see him conflicted about revealing himself, and the consequences of both his actions, and what happens if he were to do nothing. However, that contrast between explosive grandeur in the fighting set-pieces and the angst-y introspection of some of the films quieter moments, doesn’t always work, and it feels tonally uneven, less cohesive than Goyer’s other reboot script. And the screenplay as a whole isn’t without problems however, given some of the characters are weak (disappointingly, Lois Lane, played well by Amy Adams is among that number. In spite of some strong scenes, in the final act, a character who’s been set up to be strong and independent has all of her attempts to help become blunders that the men around her need to fix), and the third act is riddled with the same problems that superhero films tend to be (The Avengers was particularly guilty of this too), and became a rather indulgent (although in the case of Man of Steel, visually breathtaking) sequence in which the city in which the story takes place is left in the dust in the wake of the protagonist and antagonist finally going toe-to-toe.

It’s a well cast film, Henry Cavil is excellent as Clark Kent/Kal-El/Superman, giving him presence and an edge that allows for the angst-ridden flashbacks to have had a noticeable effect on a fully grown Clark. Small appearances from stalwart actors like Richard Schiff and Laurence Fishburne help to round out the cast. But as I said before, it’s Shannon’s General Zod that runs away with the film, whether it’s through the screaming villainy shown in the prologue or the grand, almost Shakespearian speech he delivers before the climactic battle (this kind of extreme and theatrical villain is what was missing from Thor), he may well have given my favourite performance as a comic book villain since Heath Ledger’s already iconic Joker.

A little uneven and scrappy, perhaps even unsure of itself, at the worst of times, Man of Steel is a noble failure. Ambitious, visually exceptional filmmaking that manages to shake up the reboot/origin story and structure that we’ve all seen ad nauseum by now. But at it’s best, in those moments of synergy between introspection and explosive pomposity, it’s breathtaking, well acted, and with the help of a wonderfully cast villain, stands above the crowd in terms of recent comic book adaptations.

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Review – The Master

the master movie poster images

Here it is, after a viewing, pondering, and much procrastination, my review of the newest film by Paul Thomas Anderson – The Master. And boy, oh boy, will this be a tricky one.

The first question to ask about The Master is, what is it about? And this is by no means an easy question to answer. While the plot itself is relatively simple; Freddie Quell, a man who was in the navy in World War II finds himself adrift, both physically and metaphorically when the war ends, and meets another man, the eponymous Master. But the question of what the film is about is much more difficult to answer. While it was in production, the film came under fire due to it’s alleged parallels with Scientology and L. Ron Hubbard. And there are some elements of this in play, particularly with the character of The Master himself, and his pseudo-religion, The Cause, but this is by no means the crux of the story. The focus of the film is arguably Freddie, so the film is also something of a character study of him, a man adrift without purpose, almost animalistic, being influenced by this cult. And then, there’s the relationship between Freddie and Lancaster Dodd (the eponymous Master), which I think is the core of the film; through them the film explores themes of influence, repression, and sexuality, with the relationship between them playing out like a seduction, turning into an almost abusive one, with an undercurrent of repression and homo-eroticism lingering beneath the system.
Yes, it sounds perhaps overly difficult in some ways to decipher, but, pretentious as this may sound, the almost labyrinthine story of the film is one of it’s greatest strengths, the ever-present enigma of the film allowing a wealth of interpretations and discussion, the film is truly fascinating.

Visually, the film truly is something special. I was fortunate enough to see the film in 70MM, and, while the film of course does not have extravagant visual set pieces, it is aesthetically, perhaps the best film I’ve seen all year, the cinematography is gorgeous and picturesque, as well as saying so much about the characters, as it presents to us Freddie on a boat, simply adrift, a man lost at sea in more than one way.

For me, Anderson has always been a more accomplished writer than director. Even in his excellently realised epics like Magnolia, his writing has always seemed a step ahead of the way he directs. The Master however, sees his direction taken up a notch, finally on a level with his exceptional writing. The script is well paced, moving no faster than it needs to, but always having enough of importance happening to stop it from becoming stagnant or needing to find it’s feet again partway through. The direction contains plenty of Anderson’s typical audacious moments, once again, with a purpose that works surprisingly well. In this case, both of these moments take the form of musical numbers sung by Lancaster. The first includes a bizarre nude dream sequence along with it, being shown to us from the perspective of any number of characters, and saying fascinating things about all of them, and another, an intimate, albeit bizarre serenading of Freddie. And that is where Anderson’s direction is a triumph, in it’s intimacy. The Master is another long, suitably grand film in Anderson’s style, but through focusing on only a few characters, it creates a sense of intimacy and familiarity with these characters.

I’m yet to mention the performances, or even the actors, but now I’m going to, but they truly must be mentioned, each giving perhaps the best performances of their careers.
Freddie is played by Joaquin Phoenix, who gives what will go on to perhaps be a career defining portrayal of Freddie. Everything about it is excellent, from his always slightly hunched posture and knuckle dragging, his animalistic physicality is carried over to his anger, when he lets it out, screaming and cursing at Dodd, it is a sight to behold. Phillip Seymour Hoffman, a frequent Anderson collaborator, plays The Master, in what could be the performance of his career, one that is filled with versatile, and excellent performances. As Lancaster, he shows his authority through his body and his voice, everything well measured, a word never wasted, he is the antithesis of Freddie, which makes their relationship and the duality of their personalities all the more interesting to watch as it unfolds and develops. And then, there’s Amy Adams, doing unquestionably her best work as the Machiavellian, Lady Macbeth like Peggy, Lancaster’s wife. While this film may be losing some of its awards traction, all of these actors should, and probably will be rewarded with nominations and possibly wins come awards night.

The Master, while polarising among audiences, is a film that I loved; thematically strong with a trinity of wonderful performances at its core, this film ranks highly in Anderson’s canon, and even if you’re on the side of the audience that may not like it, if you haven’t seen it yet, I implore you to, it is utterly fascinating and unique. One of the best films of the year, easily.

 

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