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Review: Man of Steel

Henry Cavill in Man of Steel

Imagine how our world would react if they came face to face with this…

Man of Steel divided plenty of critics and fans upon its release. Superman may be the most recognisable superhero, but in recent years he’s lost his lustre. If you’re re-imagining a character like writer David Goyer, Christopher Nolan and director Zack Snyder are here then, as the old saying goes, you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs (or necks).

The film’s plot concerns itself with many things (to a fault). Krypton is dying and Jor-El (Russell Crowe) decides to send his newborn son to another world. In his son’s DNA is, he hopes, the beginnings of a new Krypton free from the failures that blighted his.

General Zod (Michael Shannon) and his lieutenant Faora-Ul (Antje Traue), attempt a military coup by taking control of the Codex, a depository that contains information on the genetic future of Krypton that Jor-El has hidden within his son. They fail and are imprisoned within the Phantom Zone. Upon Zod’s release he seeks to bring Krypton back and his search takes him to Earth where he finds the now grown up Kal-El/Clark Kent (Henry Cavill).

That’s a lot to take in but Snyder should be commended on attempting to create a new mythology ripe for a new generation of fans. MoS isn’t an adaptation, instead it goes back to the beginning, lopping a backstory on top an origin story and building a world brick by brick.

It’s an approach brought to life in an opening scene that’s huge in scale and sprawling with history. Civil war erupts on Kyrpton with the planet on the verge of imploding. It’s a world away from the slow, quiet beginnings that sets off Superman: The Movie.

Mirroring Nolan’s Batman Begins, Clark’s presence on earth flits between the past and the present. The latter sees Clark attempt to find his place on Earth and forge an identity that ties him to humanity. The former shows a young Clark struggling with what he is and how to use his powers.

These scenes with Kevin Costner’s Jonathan Kent and Diane Lane’s Martha Kent grants the film a heart (and a brain) making this version of Superman a brittle yet incredibly powerful character that’s more relatable than previous incarnations.

Costner’s Kent has the same intentions as Jor-El had and sees in Clark both the potential for good and the threat he could pose. He understands that Clark can’t be pushed into becoming ‘that person’ and though it’s inevitable that he’ll don the suit and cape, the early scenes show it’s not as easy as walking into the Fortress of Solitude and appearing seconds later as a ready-made superhero.

As the film’s title implies; this Superman is a tougher version. The charm and playfulness is replaced by introspection (Cavill’s brow seems permanently furrowed), and a more rustic sensibility and an imposing physicality that plays out in the film’s second-half.

Its in the second-half where MoS loses its balance. Snyder leans heavily into action scenes, so much so that there’s not enough space for the characters to breathe, diminishing the relationship between Cavill’s Clark and Amy Adam’s Lois Lane to the point where its resolution is unconvincing.

Instead the film stretches out into one long fight as buildings crumble and streets are ripped apart. There’s an emphasis on CG effects that detaches the viewer from the realism Snyder pursues. It’s already difficult to reconcile a world and a character as fantastic as this with the notion of ‘realism’ but the action is so over-the-top that any investment in what’s happening begins to wane.

It’s a disappointing note to end on as MoS shows another side of Snyder that’s not often seen. The breathless action is expected but the sensitivity and restraint, particularly in the middle section, isn’t.

There’s any number of ways this character could have been reinvigorated, but this approach feels brave and adventurous. Forging ahead with a new take on an old hero and making him relevant, even interesting.

Flawed? Definitely, but this film brings new insight to this legendary character. He’s not quite Superman but he’s on his way.

8/10

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Review: The Fighter

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I’m the one who’s fighting. Not you, not you, and not you

The “best boxing film since Rocky” the adverts proclaimed (have they forgotten about Raging Bull or The Hurricane?) but this true to life story (or as much as a Hollywood narrative would allow), came to UK cinemas on a wave of critical and financial success following its release in the US late last year.

Despite the syrupy nature of the storyline (underdog overcomes problems to triumph), the clichéd aspect of some characters (crack addled brother, domineering mother, heckling family members), The Fighter manages to overcome its inherent familiarity to tell a story that despite the lack of surprising developments is funny, engaging and emotional.

Guised in the familiar trappings of the rags to riches story, each of the principal characters has something to gain from Walhberg’s Ward who’s torn between the people who matter most to him. The story centres on the relationships between Mark Walhberg’s Micky Ward, Christian Bale as his half-brother Dicky Edlund, Melissa Leo’s domineering matriarch Alice Ward and Amy Adams as Charlene Fleming (Micky’s girlfriend). To say they have problems co-existing with each other would be an understatement.

Ward wants to emerge from his brother’s shadow who’s considered a favourite in Lowell, Massachusetts as he ‘knocked down’ Sugar Ray Leonard (who makes a cameo appearance during the film’s opening). His mother Leo favours Dicky always referring to him in matters such as training and never appearing to show the same level of affection in Micky as she does with Dicky. It’s when Adam’s Charlene enters the frame that Micky starts to develop a personality of his own, a sense of independence from his family causing ructions between “the family”, Micky and Charlene.

It helps that in these moments O Russell displays some astute direction. The more histrionic elements, surprisingly, never feeling too out of place with perhaps the exception of one moment that manages to turn the sisters into a gang of clowns (which admittedly is funny to watch).

Each character has a point of view, each character tries to protect Micky rather than let him speak for himself which causes Micky to doubt his ability to not only to talk but to fight for himself. Walhberg puts in a very good performance, his understated manner and general lack of confidence is quiet and un-showy.

I’ve heard it allows other people with more scene stealing performances to take the limelight and that would be true. Walhberg is playing a character that’s dominated by others and it’s his drive in coming out of his brother’s shadow that makes his character as compelling as his more showy counterparts.

The performances all round are generally excellent, Bale especially as he displays a sense of comedy and playfulness combined with a sort of self loathing that he never lets on until near the end. It’s no surprise that he has to change and become a better person but such is Bale’s performance that any qualms about whether he’s too edgy fade away as you hope the best for him (and others).

Adams is as foul mouthed as I’ve seen her (a long way away from Disney Princesses or her more timid characters). As Micky’s support she pushes him to do what he wants and not be controlled by others (in a sense doing the exact same thing). Leo’s performance (along with her bouffant hair) is also excellent especially in the manner in which she can turn on a person within seconds and invoke the fear of God. She’s knowledgeable but also very judgemental and protective, always thinking of what’s best for Micky but never asking him what’s best.

It’s a slight shame (a very, very minor and ultimately forgettable one) that other elements contrive to lessen the impact of the story and remind you of how familiar this story is. At times you wonder at how excessive some moments can be whether it’s the amount of montages (four by my count) or the sisters who are amusing and add to the sense of this crazy, dysfunctional family but can be a distraction.

The fight scenes are a mixture of the rawness of Raging Bull and the drama of Rocky with punches reverberating with a mighty thud. They convince as pugilistic spectacles, even more so when framed within the look and style of the televised ESPN boxing fights from the mid-nineties (replete with commentators re-enacting their lines).

If there is a way in which they falter it’s the need to adhere to the script to generate some tension. It feels mandatory for boxing finales to feature the fighter get knocked down and then get back up. No matter how many times this might actually happen in real life it still feels a little manipulative in generating suspense.

The Fighter is a very good film, it’s already been nominated and won a few awards and there is no doubt in my mind that it deserves these mentions. It never really attempts to escape the trappings of the boxing genre but it succeeds in telling a story with genuine emotion with some great acting to boot.

8/10

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