Thursday, 20 June 2013

Man of Steel

Using British actors to reboot a super-hero franchise sees Henry Cavill, joining Christian Bale (Batman) and Andrew Garfield (Spiderman) as Superman is the latest comic book character to get re-invented. In this latest offering, Director Zack Snyder unleashes his trade mark passion for lots of CGI and action to deliver a movie that is both over-long and over-busy.

Christopher Nolan has been involved in scripting this film and it shows in the added depth and interest the characters possess. We know the story back to front and that's the challenge for the screenplay, Director and cast. Of all the Superman incarnations this one spends much longer setting the context and establishing the back story of planet Krypton and General Zod's enmity with Jor-El (Superman's biological father).

Another significant difference is that Cavill's Superman is shown to be someone who is unsure, conflicted and vulnerable - almost too human. His adoptive earthly parents do a brilliant job in raising their son and do their best to instill the qualities that build self-confidence and the ability to balance differing views. Throughout his childhood, we are shown in flash-back, how the young Clark Kent was bullied at school and struggled not to unleash his super-power on those provoking him. But inevitably he did use his powers from time to time which reinforced his differences and helped to further distance him from his peers. In search of his true identity, he leaves the family farm on the Kansas prairie and heads out as an itinerant worker hitch hiking his was through a succession of jobs.

Eventually his past catches up with him and General Zod tracks him down to earth and so the battle commences. For half the film the puny weaponry of earth is deployed against the superior alien technology of the Kryptonites. The evolutionary process on Krypton had led the race to a point where for centuries they had genetically engineered every baby for the specific role that society required them to carry out for the greater good of the people - all very utilitarian. Superman, or Kal-El as he was named at birth, was the first naturally born baby in hundreds of years and as Krypton self-destructs due to over -harvesting of the planet's power, Jor-El encodes the entire Kryptonite DNA record into Kal-El's cells. General Zod, who was genetically engineered to live a life that sought to protect the Kryptonite race and help it to survive is hell-bent on extracting the DNA record from Superman - with or without his co-operation. Jor-El's spirit keeps reappearing holographically to encourage his son not to give in and so for the second half of the film there is an epic battle as Superman fights off Zod and his lieutenants.

The film invites the viewer to reflect on the perils of genetic engineering and where going down that road may lead us. It also serves as a stark warning about harvesting the resources of the planet in an unrestrained way that does not allow them to be naturally replenished. At the heart of the story is a moral struggle. Zod's utilitarian drive to preserve the Kryptonites at all costs against Superman's Judeo-Christian humanist ethic which pushed him to do 'the right thing'.

It is all very spectacular as the familiar story is retold with creativity and a visual flourish. The characters are believable and the acting good. Russel Crowe is well cast to play Jor-El and Amy Adams offers her usual attractive self to play Lois Lane who comes through the whole ordeal without so much as a hair out of place. One to look out for is the German actress Antje Traue who plays Zod's deputy Faora-Ul - those icy blue eyes are natural - not lenses! For me, as with so many films these days, the action and fighting sequences were just too long. Every now and again the film appeared to pay visual homage to other sci-fi giants (The Matrix and Spiderman 3?) and borrow design concepts that came through with little or no modification. It produced a bit of a visual pastiche.

However, all of that aside, this was a refreshing and re-energised retelling of a familiar story with strong acting, great CGI, special effects and visual design. I am sure that Henry Cavill's next decade or so is now sorted out as we brace ourselves for the unfolding adventures of this incarnation of everybody's favourite super-hero. Go and see it for good escapist fun and cutting edge cinema. I'll give it 7.5/10.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Apocalypse Now

Harbour Lights were screening this on a one-off showing today and I decided to bite the bullet and see it for the first time on the big screen. Amazing in so many ways. I grew up with reports of the Vietnam war on daily evening news and have charted the films about the war over the past 40 plus years. There is an interesting list of someone's top 30 here on iMDB. This ranks alongside Platoon and The Deer Hunter.

This film ably shows the absurdity of war - and in particular the absurd way America fought this war. On one hand I'd like to say that the leader of every nation should watch it before they commit their people to war - but I guess those who have fought to get to the top of the political ladder won't be swayed by the affective response this film must inevitably invoke in any person who is wired in a normal sort of way.

I'm not sure the US psyche has yet resolved its demons in relation to the guilt and regret that surrounds the collective memory of Vietnam. Right at the beginning the central character, Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) tells us in narration "There is no way to tell his story without telling my own. And if his story really is a confession, then so is mine.". The Confessional still sees plenty of business as a result of this war - and rightly so. Hollywood still tries to provide a cathartic and penitential experience by administering salve on the wounds of the after-effects of Vietnam and increasingly Iraq and Afghanistan. Absolution can be an elusive thing to nail down.

This film has left a massive and enduring legacy. It won two Oscars, the Palme D'Or at Cannes, three Golden Globes and two Baftas along with a host of other awards. The film was also considered to be "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant" and was chosen for preservation by the US National Film Registry in 2000. It regularly appears at or near the top of many movie polls - check out the wikipedia article for the references.

This film was made pre-CGI and the special effects are consistently amazing. The film starts at an okay pace and then quickens - and never lets up for the entire 2.5 hour ride. The cast is an amazing group of top names led by Michael Sheen in the lead role. He plays a Special Forces Captain who is sent deep into enemy territory and then into Cambodia to terminate (with "extreme prejudice") a US Colonel whom the hierarchy deem to have gone insane and who is operating outside the normal command and control channels of the military. Three quarters of the film is about the journey to get there, the last part explores deep and dark themes about the insanity of war and what it does to people. The story doesn't end neatly - it leaves the viewer having to analyse what they have just witnessed and what they are going to do with it.

There would be many ways of exploring this film and many fine words have been written about it over the past nearly 35 years. The film is littered with literary references but for me, one of the most insightful ways would be thorough the poetry of T.S. Eliot that plays such an important part. Willard's target is Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) who spouts philosophical and literary riddles as he talks almost exclusively in metaphors:

     Kurtz: Did they say why, Willard, why they want to terminate my command?

     Willard: I was sent on a classified mission, sir.

     Kurtz: It's no longer classified, is it? Did they tell you?

     Willard: They told me that you had gone totally insane, and that your methods were unsound.

     Kurtz: Are my methods unsound?

     Willard: I don't see any method at all, sir.

     Kurtz: I expected someone like you. What did you expect? Are you an assassin?

     Willard: I'm a soldier.

     Kurtz: You're neither. You're an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks, to collect a bill

Clearly Director Francis Ford Coppola has a message for the viewer and it is one that will make him/her very uncomfortable. After some digging around I found out that the film is based on the novello Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. In poetry books Eliot's poem The Waste Land is preceded by a quotation from Heart of Darkness: "Mistah Kurtz – he dead".  So here we have Colonel Kurtz quoting Eliot and saying as his final words 'Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision, – he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath – "The horror! The horror!"'  This can be seen as a commentary on what waging war had done to Kurtz - the agony and emotion etched on the face of Willard as he fulfils his orders. On Kurtz's desk we see a copy of From Ritual to Romance by Jessie Weston and The Golden Bough by Sir James Frazer - the two texts which Eliot says inspired his poem The Waste Land.

There are many memorable passages in this film that have gone down in cinematic history - and rightly so. This is an intelligent, creative and courageous piece of cinema which seeks not to offer an analysis but to recreate through it's dialogue and characters an opportunity for the modern-day voyeur to catch the faintest of glimpses of what the horror of war can lead people to - good people - when ideologies clash. The action is so intense and immediate, and the soundtrack so rich and detailed, that you can you almost smell the napalm - even if it's not the morning!

I have no choice other than to give this film 9/10. Great cinema.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013


I don't if you are interested in what films people search for most often on this site - it's something which fascinates me. I am grateful for (most) comments that folk leave and I'm always up for a conversation - and very happy for people to see things differently.

If you are interested in what people are looking at, here are the viewing stats as of today. Thanks for your interest.

As you can see Spirited Away is out in the lead but given that Sound of My Voice was only posted a year ago, it is catching up quickly. One film that ranks quite highly but is not in the top 10 is Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs! Why?

Monday, 3 June 2013


I wasn't quite sure what to expect from this film - but I found it to be thoroughly enchanting. An out-and-out rom-com, Populaire brings a refreshing burst of colour and vivacity which combine to deliver a film that has a predictable trajectory, but nevertheless is thoroughly enjoyable.

The way the film was designed (set in 1958), the use of costumes and music and centring the story on speed typing competitions all combine to deliver a good old dose of nostalgia. Add to that strong performances from the leading actors and we have another helping of French cinema at its best. It would be fair to say that some parts of the story get a bit lumpy and maybe too syrupy and so make for an uneven pace but all of that for me was easily forgotten in the wake of Déborah François' performace as Rose Pamphyl - she simply steals the show with a performance that evokes the Elvin charm of Audrey Hepburn and the witty comedy of Doris Day - both at their peak when the film was set.


The story is the familiar little girl from the sticks gets propelled onto a world stage whilst the one doing the propelling is unable to allow himself to fall in love while everyone around can see it's what's meant to be. Rose escapes the drudgery of life in her domineering widower father's village store and her impending marriage to the son of the local mechanic to take up a post as secretary to an Insurance Agent in the local town of Lisieux. Rose is far from ideal for the job - she is clumsy, inexperienced and has no formal qualifications for the post - but she can type very quickly - with just two fingers.

The Insurance Agent Louis Échard  is played by Romain Duris who delivers a surly yet vulnerable dapper man-about-town performance. As with all of us, Louis has a past which is some ways is similar to Rose's - a domineering father and founder of the family Insurance business now run by Louis.. Whereas Rose's father never lifted his eyes above the horizon and expected the same from his daughter, Louis' father demanded success and victory - being number one is the only thing that matters. In his earlier years Louis had been a champion athlete excelling at many sports - he knew what it was to be driven by the need to win. So both characters are trying to escape the baggage of their upbringing - but Loius has more baggage than most. During the war, he was leader of a local resistance group and because of one incident with the group his psyche is wounded and he is unable to commit.

So Loius hires Rose with the express intention of training her to become a champion typist. She begins in regional Normandie contest, works her way up to win the national contest and then goes for a world type-off in new York. As the story unfolds, Loius is constantly drawn to his first love Marie (Bérénice Bejo [The Artist]) the wife of his best friend and the woman he cannot have. Meanwhile Rose is always right in front of him and she is the very woman he will not allow himself to have. The tension of this love-triangle maintains the 'will he, won't he' tension very well for nearly all of the story.

In the end this is a simple tale with fine acting and a strong evocation of 1950's Hollywood movies and French chic (one scene is lifted directly from Vertigo). The warmth that Rose radiates touches all that she encounters, but her journey is not straightforward as she battles to establish her own identity on a pathway that she will choose - nouvelle femme! Louis generates from viewers a feeling of sympathy which made me want to shake him by the shoulders to bring him to his senses on more than one occasion.

As you may have gathered I rather liked this film and simply loved François' Rose. This is a heart-warming film that does far more good than ill. For those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, it offers an opportunity to reflect on our own sense of self and how our baggage contributes to the making of the relationships that we are in. It's also a simple love story and we all need to reconnect with those! Do go and see it. I'll give it 8/10.