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Review – Arrival (12a) [2016]

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Star Rating: 4/5

Director:

  • Denis Villeneuve – Prisoners, Sicario, Untitled Blade Runner film

Cast:

Music Composer:

  • Johann Johannsson – Prisoners, The Theory of Everything, Sicario, The Mercy

Aliens invading Earth is not an original idea. Since 1996, there has been an overabundance of alien invasion movies. From the entertaining (Independence Day I and Men in Black I); to the risible (Mars Attacks! and Battlefield Earth); to the Tom Cruise saves the day flicks (War of the Worlds, Oblivion and Edge of Tomorrow); to a board game adaptation (Battleship, starring deserved Golden Raspberry winner Rihanna); to comic book adaptations (The Avengers I and Man of Steel); to the dull (Battle: LA and Independence Day II), audiences have seemingly seen it all when it comes to this genre. So how can Arrival differentiate itself and stamp its own mark?

One of the twelve UFOs. This one has stopped in rural Montana, with beautiful fields and mountains for scenery.

One of the twelve UFOs. This one has stopped in rural Montana, with beautiful fields and mountains for scenery.

Arrival is based on the short story by Ted Chiang. Twelve UFOs (shaped like giant contact-lenses) station themselves on random locations in the world. Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) of the US military asks Louise (Amy Adams), an expert linguistics lecturer, to use her philological skills to help the US government. Louise agrees and together with Ian (Jeremy Renner), a scientist, they try to work out what the aliens are saying, why they have come, and what their intentions are.

Concurrently, Louise keeps thinking of her daughter, Hannah. Somehow, Louise’s interactions with Hannah have a link to the aliens. But what is it?

Arrival is an interesting and original sci-fi film. Unlike the movies listed above, this one has no action sequences. Indeed, it is anti-action and does not depend on mass special effects either. Rather, the movie stresses the need for dialogue between the humans and the great other. This is most refreshing as guns, explosions, and the annihilation of aliens has long since become a sci-fi trope.

The stress for dialogue also enables viewers to comprehend the nature of our own languages and how they have shaped societies, which is interesting. Furthermore, the film gives us insight into a lost past in which peoples who had no common language made peace and worked with one other: for example, when the Spanish and Portuguese invaded Latin America in the late-fifteen century, and when the British began forging an empire in India in the seventeenth century. (Granted, the Spanish, Portuguese and British killed their fair share of the indigenous populations. But they still had to communicate and work with those they didn’t kill.)

Louise (Amy Adams) looking up in awe at the aliens. Her big blue eyes are so expressive and hint at a plethora of emotions running through her to add depth to her character.

Louise (Amy Adams) looking up in awe at the aliens. Her big blue eyes are so expressive and hint at a plethora of emotions running through her to add depth to her character.

Yet, as interesting as it is watching humans trying to work a new language, it is not particularly stimulating. At times, it is like watching someone untie a bunch of tangled wires or put together a complex, multi-piece puzzle. Both of which are fascinating, but become tedious after a while. Arrival does, however, do its best to keep viewers attentive. Principally, this is done by Forest Whitaker’s character (repeatedly) urging Amy Adams/Louise and Jeremy Renner/Ian to find out the intentions of the aliens because the US, Chinese, Russian and Sudanese(?) governments are preparing to launch military assaults on the UFOs/aliens. It is a good method, but one that becomes cheap and wearisome after a while.

Moreover, Arrival’s ending has two elements: one is very clever and satisfying; the other, though, streams into wishful thinking. This leaves audiences with a peculiar feeling. One wants to praise the finale, yet one cannot help but feel that it weakens the film as most of mankind (realists) understand that international diplomacy does not work the way the movie illustrates; self-interest being one of the many reasons for this.

But for all the plot’s problems, the actors perform well; especially, Amy Adams. Her character is multifaceted since Louise is witty, successful and hardworking, but also insecure and in grief. The pressure of trying to understand the Alien’s language rapidly gets at her, as well, and the way it manifests itself makes for curious viewing.

Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) telling Louise and Ian (Jeremy Renner) to find out why the aliens have come and what they want. And fast. Otherwise, there will be war.

Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) telling Louise and Ian (Jeremy Renner) to find out why the aliens have come and what they want. And fast. Otherwise, there will be war.

Unusually, the male characters are marginalised. Normally in Hollywood, it is the other way round. But Arrival has smartly inverted this cliché. Renner’s character/Ian is a good support for Louise and they work well together. Whitaker’s character/Colonel Weber is less so. He has one purpose and it is a relief that his character does not stray into the puffed-up general bad-guy trope, like Steven Lang’s villainous army man in Avatar. This is a good thing too for two reasons: one, Whitaker/Weber is not a villain (on the contrary, he is just a man who is afraid of the unknown); and, two, it helps to make Arrival something different.

Arrival is a brave and admirable alien invasion drama. It is distinctive as it refuses to go down the action and CGI route. Instead, it relies on its characters and the quest for dialogue and peace. The movie achieves this with success. For sure, the movie has issues, notably its ending. Nevertheless, Arrival must be commended. It stamps its own mark in a genre that has otherwise become generic and braindead.

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Review – Nocturnal Animals (15) [2016]

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Star Rating 5/5

Director:

  • Tom Ford – A Single Man

Cast:

  • Amy Adams – Catch Me If You CanThe FighterThe MasterHerMan of SteelBig EyesBatman v Superman, Arrival
  • Jake Gyllenhaal – The Day After Tomorrow, Source Code, Prisoners, Southpaw, Stronger
  • Armie Hammer – Gossip Girl, The Social Network, Edgar, The Man From UNCLE, Jackpot
  • Isla Fisher – Wedding Crashers, Confessions of A Shopaholic, Now You See Me I & II, Keeping Up With The Joneses
  • Michael Shannon – Revolutionary Road,Take ShelterMudMan of Steel, Batman v SupermanElvis & Nixon
  • Ellie Bamber – The Falling, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms
  • Laura Linney – The Truman Show, Love Actually, John Adams, The Dinner
  • Andrea Riseborough – Shadow Dancer, Oblivion, Birdman, National Treasure, The Death of Stalin
  • Michael Sheen – Frost/Nixon, Twilight II & IV(i)-(ii), Alice In Wonderland I & II, Passengers
  • Karl Glusman – Love, Stonewall, The Neon Demon, Above Suspicion
  • Robert Aramayo – Game of Thrones, The Empty Man, Lost In Florence
  • Aaron Taylor-Johnson – Nowhere Boy, Kick-Ass I & II, Godzilla, The Wall

Music Composer:

  • Abel Korzeniowski – A Single Man, W.E., Romeo & Juliet, Penny Dreadful

The Light Between Oceans (TLBO) looked like a film that, at first glance, was Oscar material. It had the cast, the ideas and the cinematography to be a great film. But it was a total mess of a movie and a real disappointment. By way of contrast, Nocturnal Animals has similar components. Only, it is brilliant.

Susan (Amy Adams), alone in her mansion, drinking whiskey. She has such sad eyes that are full of the deepest of emotions.

Susan (Amy Adams), alone in her mansion, drinking whiskey. She has such blue and sad eyes that are full of the deepest of emotions.

Nocturnal Animals is a film based on the 1993 book, Tony and Susan, by Austin Wright. Susan (Amy Adams) is a modern-art gallery owner. One day, as her second husband, Walker (Armie Hammer), goes off on a ‘business trip,’ Susan gets a package in the post. It is from her first husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), whom Susan left twenty years ago. He has sent her a manuscript of his new book, entitled ‘Nocturnal Animals,’ and wants to hear her opinion.

Alone in her beautiful mansion overlooking LA, Susan picks up the manuscript and begins reading it. However, as she reads it, she is forced to relive and confront some demons from her past. Notably: her marriage to Edward and why it broke down.

Nocturnal Animals is full of suspense, tense and gripping. It is a phenomenal story within a story movie, in which both stories are fascinating for very different reasons: the first is about Susan/Amy Adams, who lives the high (empty) life in LA, but is deeply unhappy; the second is about a good family, consisting of Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal), Laura (Isla Fisher, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Amy Adams), and India (Ellie Bamber), on their way to a vacation that goes violently wrong, and a thirst for justice/vengeance ensues. Both stories could be feature films in their own rights. Yet, Director Tom Ford links them together superbly so that the second story enhances our understanding of the first and is a metaphor for it.

Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal, who also plays Edward) and detective Bobby (Michael Shannon) in the rocky plains in the middle of nowhere in Texas, searching for the scene of the crime.

Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal, who also plays Edward) and detective Bobby (Michael Shannon) in the rocky plains in the middle of nowhere in Texas, searching for the scene of the crime.

Like TLBO, Nocturnal Animals deals with a plethora of complex issues, such as love, regret, people turning into their parents, justice, revenge, and actions having consequences. But unlike TLBO, Nocturnal Animals gives substance to these issues and the result makes for a deeply satisfying watch.

Suffice to say, the whole cast excels. Amy Adams is the standout performer as the successful but emotionally broken main character, who became everything she did not want to be; Jake Gyllenhaal fits seamlessly into both the sensitive Edward and the traumatised Tony; Michael Shannon feels genuine as the detective tracking down the sick thugs who commit the heinous crimes on Tony’s family; and Aaron Taylor-Johnson is unrecognisable as the leading hillbilly hoodlum.

Furthermore, Ford’s style of directing and the music heighten the tension throughout the movie. Ford holds onto scenes (particularly the horrific ones) for longer than audiences would like. This induces fear and an unnerving sensation into viewers. The music augments this with pulsing thuds and plucky string noises to further unsettle audiences.

Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) looking like he is about to break into sadistic laughter.

Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) looking like he is about to break into sadistic laughter.

And if that weren’t enough, the locations add an organic terror. Nocturnal Animals lacks the beauty of landscapes such as those seen in The Way Back, The Revenant and TLBO. But the fine-looking houses have a dangerous edge, as if they suck one into a vacuous void that one cannot get out of; and the deserted planes of the Deep South, the long highways, and the abandoned dusty shacks in the middle of nowhere (where one imagines unspeakable crimes occurring in the real world) ramp up the tension to intolerable levels.

All-in-all, Nocturnal Animals is an outstanding movie. It is an arresting thriller that is absolutely flawless both narratively and in its execution. While TLBO looked like Oscar material but failed to live up to its own (high) standards, Nocturnal Animals looks the part and succeeds in the most impressive and profound ways.

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Review – Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (12a) [2016]

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Star Rating: 2/5

Director:

  • Zack Snyder – 300, Watchmen, Sucker Punch, Man of Steel, Justice League: Part I

Executive Producer:

Cast:

Music Composers:

Batman v Superman…? The title alone draws a sigh. How can a mortal defeat an immortal? How can a man defeat a god? These questions already hint at problems with the film and that is before its 151-minute running time begins. And then there is the problem of Director Zack Snyder, and the sigh lengthens. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was doomed from the start, wasn’t it?

The villainous Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), getting in away of a first and tense encounter between Clarke Kent (Henry Cavill) and Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck).

The villainous Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), getting in away of a first and tense encounter between Clarke Kent (Henry Cavill) and Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck).

  Batman v Superman (BvS) is about… well, that is another of the film’s many problems. The first 90-100 minutes are a convoluted, chaotic and inconsistent muddle just to pit Batman (Ben Affleck) and Superman (Henry Cavill) in a fist fight against one another. And this fist fight, which comes to include Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) and Doomsday (aka the Cave Troll from Lord of the Rings I: The Fellowship of the Ring) goes on for an Earth’s turn.

One would have thought that Zack Snyder had learned his lessons from Man of Steel and not put in a long (pointless and boring) fist fight in which collateral damage is caused on a colossal scale. (The first two-thirds of BvS bangs on about how much of a menace Superman is because of the collateral damage he caused in his flying fight with General Zod.) But no. The fight scenes at the end of BvS go on for even longer and cause even more collateral damage than in Man of Steel. It is quite astonishing, really.

What is not astonishing, however, are the twists in BvS. Worse, they are not in the least surprising. (The trailer gives most of them away anyway.) One twist in particular, which has to do with Clark Kent’s and Bruce Wayne’s deceased mothers, is downright stupid. Who thought that was a good idea? Was it you, Snyder? Really?

A fire-eyed Doomsday, ready to destroy all of mankind. Weta are behind the design of this 'terrifying' monster. Alas, the same company have used this monster before and he was defeated then. So what chance of him surviving this time around?

A fire-eyed Doomsday, ready to destroy all of mankind. Weta are behind the design of this ‘terrifying’ monster. Alas, the same company have used this monster before and he was defeated then. So what chance of him surviving this time around?

And whose idea was it to have an origins story for Bruce Wayne? We had that in 2005 with Batman Begins. There was no need to have it in this film; especially not with that utterly clichéd, slow-motioned “Noooooooooo!”. For goodness sake, in 2005 Darth Vadar did it in Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and it was laughable back then. So again, whose idea was it to put that in BvS? Was it you, Snyder? Or are you going to blame Christopher Nolan? (Yes, that genius who gave us The Dark Knight Trilogy, Inception and a host of other thought-provoking films. Quite frankly, it is hard to believe that Nolan had any input into the plot for BvS as one can believe he can excrete a better film than this one.)

Whether Snyder or Nolan are to blame for the paucity of BvS, it should be noted that the actors are entirely blameless. In fact, Henry Cavill, Ben Affleck, Jesse Eisenberg, Jeremy Irons and Amy Adams should be commended for trying so damn hard to make something of this train wreck. No-one can question their efforts. Although, Clark Kent/Superman is by nature devoid of character, making him somewhat boring to watch; and Lex Luthor… well, it is hard to say what Snyder was aiming for with the character. Villains can be scary, cunning, honourable, witty, sadistic or cruel (or mixtures of all those traits). But villains cannot be annoying, and Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor is bloody annoying. As a result, one wants him dead the moment he introduces himself and for all the wrong reasons.

Lastly, it should be said that even this disaster of a movie has some positive points. The relationship between Bruce Wayne and Alfred is one such point. Alfred might be the commander-in-chief of Bruce’s arsenal instead of his butler (just go with it), yet whenever the two of them are together on-screen the scenes are genuinely enjoyable and wryly funny. For a film that takes itself way too seriously (but has stupidly unrealistic fight scenes), Bruce and Alfred strike the right tonal balance so as to make the jokes apt for their circumstances.

Superman and Batman on the same side (shocking!), along with Wonder Woman (centre, Gal Gadot), to take down Doomsday.

Superman and Batman on the same side (shocking!), along with Wonder Woman (centre, Gal Gadot), to take down Doomsday.

The other major positive point is the visuals. Credit where credit is due: Snyder knows how to make his products look shiny. It is just a shame that the visuals have no substance under the gloss.

Over-all, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a mess. The storylines are all over the place, the tone is off, and the fight scenes go on for too long. Bruce Wayne and Alfred provide highlights that one can enjoy, but not even Ben Affleck’s and Jeremy Irons’ best efforts can make this film worthwhile. No, they and the rest of the cast have been badly let down by director Zack Snyder. The man should not helm another movie until he learns how to write a sound and logical script. Nevertheless, guess who Hollywood has signed up to direct Justice League: Part I & II? Yes, you guessed it: Zack Snyder. To quote Homer Simpson: “D’oh!”

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Review – Big Eyes (15) [2014]

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Star Rating: 4/5

Director:

  • Tim Burton – Edward Scissorhands, Mars Attacks!, Corpse Bride, Alice In Wonderland I & II

Cast:

Music Composer:

  • Danny Elfman – The Simpson’s, Spiderman I & II, Corpse Bride, The Next Three Days, Fifty Shades of Grey

When it comes to predatory animals, one knows to stay well away. Yet, when it comes to predatory people, for one reason or another, one does not always act with the same haste or caution. The consequences of this lack of haste or caution can be damaging to the predator’s prey. Tim Burton, back to his best with Big Eyes, shows what can happen to an individual who falls prey to a person with a predatory nature.

Walter (Christoph Waltz) standing over Margaret (Amy Adams) and admiring her work.

Walter (Christoph Waltz) standing over Margaret (Amy Adams) and admiring her work.

Big Eyes is a true story based on what happened to the artist Margaret Keane in America, in the 1950s and early-1960s. Margaret (Amy Adams), is a single mother to Jane (when small played by Delaney Raye; when older played by Madeleine Arthur), who draws children with unusually large eyes as a hobby to earn a bit of money.

At an art fair one day, Margaret meets the smooth-talking Walter (Christoph Waltz), another artist who claims that she has talent and that she could make fortunes from her work. Margaret becomes enchanted by Walter. Soon, they are married and work together to make serious amounts of money. But the more time Margaret spends with Walter, the more it becomes apparent that Walter is not all that he seems. Eventually, this leads to a courtroom battle over royalty fees for the drawings.

Big Eyes is a really enjoyable film. It has a well written script that is surprisingly humorous, and the two lead actors play their parts brilliantly. Amy Adams (as ever) plays her role convincingly; this time as a callow woman with low self-esteem, who is pressured into a situation whereby she allows herself to be downtrodden by her husband. Similarly, Christoph Waltz (as ever) is a joy to watch, despite being a domineering husband who takes advantage of a vulnerable woman for the sake of making a waterfall of money. The leering, Cheshire cat-like grin never leaves his face and the words that roll off his silver-tongue underlie why predatory people are as dangerous as their beastly cousins in the wild. (Both devour their prey, just in different ways.)

An example of the sort of drawings Margaret draws.

An example of the sort of pictures Margaret draws.

Nevertheless, it is not just the two lead actors that make Big Eyes so watchable. The film has the feel of a director who loved creating it. The topic of the movie is the perfect fit for Tim Burton. Several of his films, like The Nightmare Before Christmas, Mars Attacks!, James And The Giant Peach, Corpse Bride and Alice In Wonderland, all consist of characters with unusually (and creepily) big eyes. Consequently, Burton’s passion radiates from the screen, elevating Big Eyes to make it a more pleasurable.

One may feel Burton’s passion throughout the film, but that does not mean it is flawless, sadly. First, Burton uses the (jarringly) antiquated technique of a narrator at the beginning of the movie and at random points throughout it, to put forward information to the viewers. (If these pieces of information said by the voiceover are so critical to the story, why couldn’t they have been incorporated into the dialogue like everything else?) Second, certain elements of Walter’s life are never properly explored and are dropped as quickly as they are brought up. This is brow-raising to say the least.

Margaret, who by this point has drawn so many pictures with abnormally big eyes that she is beginning to them (maddeningly) in her own reflection.

Margaret, who by this point has drawn so many pictures with abnormally big eyes that she is beginning to them (maddeningly) in her own reflection.

And, third, although Big Eyes is based on a true story, there is no way that the scenes in the courtroom are what truly happened. The courtroom scenes are too ludicrous and too camp to have been true. But, in fairness to Burton, they are absolutely hilarious. And while one cannot ignore the unreality of the scenes, one must applaud Burton for his alterations as they enhance the scenes and the film’s enjoyment factor.

All-in-all, Big Eyes is a very entertaining and satisfying film. The movie is funny, has a good script, an even better cast, and a director who is in love with the subject-matter at the heart of the tale. Burton could have neatened Big Eyes further by using some more modern techniques to convey information, by tying up some of the movie’s loose ends, and by not making the film camp enough to slot into the 1980s.

But to focus on these matters too much is to do the film a disservice. Instead, one should focus on the primary moral of the story: notably, to stay away from predatory people because they can only have a detrimental impact on one’s confidence, one one’s self-esteem, and on one’s life in general, as Margaret Keane found.

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Review – Her (15) [2014]

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Star Rating: 4/5

Director:

  • Spike Jonze – Being John Malkovich, Where The Wild Things Are, Pretty Sweet, Choose You

Cast:

Music Composer:

  • Owen Pallett – The Box, The Wait

Over the last two decades, technology has taken on a greater and more controlling part of everyday life for people. From transportation to computers to sophisticated mobile phones, it is almost impossible to imagine a time when mankind lived without technology virtually running our lives. But can technology go further? Can people develop feelings for technology as if it were a complex person? This is what Spike Jonze’s impressive, if strange, indie romantic comedy Her explores.

Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), looking back in time, remembering when he broke up with his childhood sweetheart Catherine (Rooney Mara).

Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), looking back in time, remembering when he broke up with his childhood sweetheart Catherine (Rooney Mara).

Her is set in 2025 and follows Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), a lonely, sad man. By day, Theodore works for a business that transcribes heartfelt messages for people unwilling or unable to speak/write such messages to loved ones; and by night, he plays 3D video games in his room and has phone sex with random women.

Unhappy with the way his life is panning out, especially because he is in the process of divorcing his childhood sweetheart, Catherine (Rooney Mara), Theodore purchases an interactive operating system. Theodore chooses certain personality traits for his operating system and soon forms a relationship with his operating system, which calls itself/herself Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson).

Her is an interesting film. The movie raises some thought-provoking questions as to what constitutes a relationship and whether a relationship needs to have physical elements for it to be emotionally satisfying. At times whilst watching Her, one forgets that Samantha/Scarlett Johansson is not physically there, such is the three-dimensional realness of her character.

Theodore out on a blind date with Amelia (Olivia Wilde).

Theodore out on a blind date with Amelia (Olivia Wilde).

Part of the reason why one subconsciously believes that Samantha/Scarlett Johansson is physically there is because of the depth of her character. Indeed, she has a three-dimensional realness that is both noteworthy and worrying at the same time. But another factor is the strength of the performances of the cast, which is aided by the excellence of the script Jonze has written, the artfulness of the film’s music, and the believability of the futuristic world that has been created.

As ever, Joaquin Phoenix plays magnificently as the odd, socially-inept, reclusive, and commitment-phobic Theodore, trying to find a way out of his own misery. Phoenix spends much of the time on screen by himself, talking to his operating system. Despite this, Phoenix carries the movie with his engagingly sensitive and highly-complicated display in a similar vein to Sandra Bullock in Gravity, and in a different way as James Franco did in 127 Hours.

Similarly, Amy Adams is splendid as Theodore’s odd, unconfident friend, with a failing marriage, and whose career has yet to take off; Scarlett Johansson provides humour, a get-up-and-go attitude, and an intelligence that makes her the envy of any genuine person; and Rooney Mara plays well enough (with the small time she is given) as Theodore’s soon-to-be ex-wife, trying to make sense of her husband’s choice to date an operating system without making the scene look laughable and ludicrous.

Theodore, unable to sleep, so he turns on his operating system to talk with Samanatha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson).

Theodore, lonely and unable to sleep, turns on his operating system to talk with Samanatha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson).

However, what let’s Her down is that it is way too long and (tragically) quite boring. Her’s premise is used up within thirty minutes of its running time. This means that the film’s remaining 96 minutes feels like it goes on and on. This is a real shame, as Her is something genuinely different to what one is so used to watching in romantic comedies.

All-in-all, Her is an original and, in so many ways, is a great film. The acting is brilliant, Jonze’s script is outstanding, the music is wonderfully atmospheric, and the world the movie is set in is realistic and apt. Yet, Her should have been 45 minutes long at the most, rendering the majority of the film tedious and wearisome. Moreover, it is a weird movie that is unlikely to sit well with most viewers. Most conspicuously, Her raises the issues of what constitutes a relationship, and how far one’s relationship with technology can go. Considering how much technology has come (and will continue) to rule people’s lives, this is a troubling thought and operating systems, like Samantha, might not be so hypothetical in the not-too-distant future.

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Review – Man of Steel (12a) [2013]

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Star Rating: 2.5/5

Director:

Producer:

  • Christopher Nolan – The Prestige, Inception, The Dark Knight I-III, Transcendence

Cast:

Music Composer:

Zack Snyder, who became a major film director following 300, is renowned for making movies that are pleasing on the eye, but have little by way of substance. Watchmen attempted to be profound without much success, and the less said about Sucker Punch the better. But could the input of the exceptional Christopher Nolan give Snyder the tools to change his ways and make the reboot of Superman, Man of Steel, a masterpiece?

Clarke Kent (Henry Cavill) working as a blue-collar worker, unsure as to who he really is or where his life is taking him.

Clarke Kent (Henry Cavill) working as a blue-collar worker, unsure as to who he really is or where his life is taking him.

  Man of Steel begins with Jor’El (Russell Crowe) sending his baby son, Kal-El to Earth before Krypton implodes. On Earth, Kal-El grows up as Clarke Kent (Henry Cavill) in America, aware of his strengths, yet uncertain as to who he is.

However, when General Zod (Michael Shannon) threatens Earth with destruction unless they hand over the ‘alien among the people,’ Clarke learns of his past and that he must confront his father-on-Krypton’s enemy.

Man of Steel begins in an interesting way by briefly showing audiences the politics on Krypton and why the planet foundered. It is accompanied by some stunning special effects to give viewers a true feel for the nature of the planet itself, including how babies are born, which bears a striking resemblance to how people are formed in Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World.

Following the prologue of Krypton’s self-destruction, the film goes back and forth, illustrating Clarke Kent’s confusion throughout his life, in the wake of him becoming Superman. The most interesting aspect of this development is when Clarke’s father-on-Earth, Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner), asks/advises Clarke on the sort of man he wants to grow up to be. This attempts to give Clarke a third dimension, as well as some much needed depth to Man of Steel.

General Zod (Michael Shannon) declaring his strategy on Krypton.

General Zod (Michael Shannon) declaring his strategy on Krypton.

Alas, the movie otherwise lacks complexity and has the feel of Snyder’s Watchmen and, particular, Sucker Punch. Worse, as Snyder makes his eponymous character to be a God-like superhero, there is no sense of peril when watching Superman fight. Consequently, the half-dozen Matrix-style action scenes go on for far too long they become repetitive and boring quickly.

Length, in general, is a problem for Man of Steel. At 143 minutes, it is tediously long, especially as the plot only really starts when General Zod threatens Earth about an hour and fifteen minutes into the movie.

Furthermore, Man of Steel is not assisted by the characters. Although they’re all derived from the comic books, none of them are particularly interesting. That is not to say that the actors do a bad job with what they’re given, but the material does not allow them to excel. Henry Cavill fits the build and is adequate as Superman. But Superman lacks the charisma of Tony Stark/Iron Man or the multi-faceted personality of Bruce Wayne that Nolan superbly exploited in his Dark Knight Trilogy. Superman, in short, is just a traditional (ordinary) hero. The good, moral hero has been done to death, and viewers are right to demand more from filmmakers on this matter, even if the character is strictly in accordance with the comic books.

Similarly, Michael Shannon does a decent job as General Zod. Yet, Zod is more or less an old school, stereotypical villain, which is not interesting anymore. Kevin Costner and Russell Crowe playing as Clarke’s two fathers have the simplest roles in the film, but they are the most interesting characters by a distance (although Crowe’s part for much of the storyline is a deus ex machina, which is very frustrating).

Superman, flying in to save the city and the people from General Zod.

Superman, flying in to save the city and the people from General Zod.

Unusually, however, Amy Adams does not do herself justice as the journalist, Lois Lane. Whenever Lois speaks about Clarke’s supernatural/alien powers, Adams does not look like she believes in what she is saying, even though she attempts sincerity. (Then again, it is hard to criticise Adams on this matter, since the more serious one tries to be when talking about supernatural forces or aliens, the more laughable it appears.) And, strangely, the music by Hans Zimmer sounds average and unmemorable, which is most unusual for him, and that probably sums up Man of Steel.

Over-all, Man of Steel has a few stimulating ideas and some fantastic CGI that is worth seeing alone. However, the ideas are under-employed, and much of the film, including the major fight scenes are monotonous and boring. Thus, Man of Steel lacks what made Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies so engrossing, and it disappointingly bears the hallmarks of Zack Snyder’s films: all gloss and no substance.

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Review – The Master (15) [2012]

Star Rating: 4.5/5

Director:

  • Paul Thomas Anderson – Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood

Cast:

  • Joaquin Phoenix – Gladiator, We Own The Night, Her
  • Philip Seymour Hoffman – The Ides of March, Moneyball, A Most Wanted Man
  • Amy Adams – Charlie Wilson’s War, The Fighter, Man of Steel
  • Ambyr Childers – Playback, Crossfire, Gangster Squad
  • Jesse Plemons – Paul, Battleship, Flutter

Tom Cruise and John Travolta are two of the most well-known members of the Church of Scientology. Following the former’s divorce to Katie Holmes earlier this year, the nature of the quasi-religion/cult, founded by L. Ron Hubbard in 1952, was came under media scrutiny, and not without some bad press. Yet, one key element that was not addressed during the Cruise-Holmes divorce was the type of individual who would join such a movement. The Master gives us some ideas in excellent fashion.

Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) looking like he needs to be seen by the men in white coats.

The Master is set during the 1950s, centred round Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix). Freddie is a naval veteran who is yet to find peace with himself after World War II (WWII). He is suffering from a multitude of psychological issues and drinking anything to excess that he can get his hands on.

Randomly, he finds himself aboard a ship that is being borrowed by a movement, called The Cause. There, he finds himself mesmerised by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the charismatic leader of the cult, believing that Lancaster has the cure to his problems.

The Master is a 144-minute art-house film with a peculiar atmosphere. The 1950s-style music has been adjusted, weirdly, yet aptly, to make one feel uncomfortable in almost every scene as we explore the nature of this bizarre cult through Freddie’s eyes.

One watches with bewilderment as The Cause’s followers lap up Lancaster Dodd’s (bonkers) ideology, as well as their aggressive reactions to those who dare to question any aspect of the dogma, even if it is illogical and contradictory. Moreover, one sees the 1984-style, brainwashing techniques that some cults adopt not only to allow people to join the movement, but to ensure that they are ‘committed’ to the cause.

Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) giving one of his fantastic, if crazy, speeches about how one is connected to previous and future existences.

The alarming craziness of The Cause’s ideology makes up for the slowness of The Master and the lack of activity in the plot. The quality of the acting does the same. Joaquin Phoenix delivers a master-class performance as someone suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and alcoholism (paint-thinner and lighter fluid included). He always looks exhausted, distressed, and like he’s about to blow a fuse. Additionally, his speech is consistently slurred, entailing that viewers will believe that Freddie is on the verge of a psychotic breakdown.

Whilst Phoenix is the stand-out performer in the film, the rest of the cast do their roles with equal capability, even if their ones are less challenging. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays exceptionally plausibly as the captivating, yet mad and flawed leader of the cult. Hoffman’s aura and charisma, as Lancaster Dodd, indicates why so many people in 1950s America were drawn to (the self-declared human-deity) L. Ron Hubbard. In addition, Dodd’s magnetic personality hints at how Hubbard managed to found the Church of Scientology and accrue millions of dollars from his followers. That all of this can be encompassed in one performance is testament to Hoffman’s acting skills.

Phoenix and Hoffman dominate The Master, thereby leaving little room for the rest of the cast to showcase their abilities. Nevertheless, Amy Adams plays very well as Lancaster’s wife, whose devotion to the movement is scarily absolute; similar things can be said for Ambyr Childers, who plays as Lancaster’s daughter, and who spends much of the time she is on screen teasing Freddie; and Jesse Plemons does a decent enough job as Lancaster’s son, who ultimately knows that his father is a phoney making it all up as he goes along.

Peggy Dodd (Amy Adams), Lancaster’s wife, appeaing to her husband to do something about Freddie due to his drinking problems.

Much praise should rightly go to the cast. But director Paul Thomas Anderson should also get credit for making The Master look like one is reliving 1950s America. The clothes, the hair-styles and the music all seem to perfectly fit into place. Furthermore, there is no mention of the term ‘Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder’ in the movie. This is because the term did not exist in those days. Still, it would have been easy for Anderson (even if it would have been patronising on the audience) to have had someone in the film state the obvious and make a factual error. After-all, in Gladiator Ridley Scott made Lucilla, the sister of Emperor Commodus, played coincidentally by Phoenix, outlive her brother when in fact she predeceased her brother; and in the 2009 Dorian Gray, Oliver Parker inserted the Suffragettes into the narrative, even though when Oscar Wilde wrote the book in 1890 the Suffragettes had yet to be formed. Anderson, therefore, should be complimented for not falling into such a trap.

All-in-all, The Master is a brilliant, but strange movie. The film might be slow, long and devoid of a linear plot. However, with superb acting and analogies to real-life cults, like Scientology, one is likely to be mesmerised whilst watching the movie from the point of view of the messed-up Freddie. Freddie might have ostensibly little in common with the likes of Tom Cruise and John Travolta but, through Freddie, The Master can give one an understanding for the sorts of people who join cults.

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