Man of Steel: not quite a Nolan, but juicier than ever

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Co-produced by Christopher Nolan and directed by the somewhat audacious blockbuster engineer Zack Snyder, Man of Steel takes Superman (Henry Cavill) back to square one and recalibrates him as a pure-of-heart hero for a new age. It’s a risky move, the implications of which are fully realized in the movie’s tense climax, in which Superman is compelled to act in a way that none of the other prior screen incarnations of the hero would ever have considered.

Nolan co-concocted the story line with expert screenwriter David Goyer, and Goyer battles the origin-stories-are-boring problem with a two-pronged approach. The birth of Kal-El and the end of the planet Krypton narrative gets a juicy backstory involving genetic archiving, internecine struggles between warlike factions, and a more pronounced series of confrontations between wise and saintly Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and the once-noble but increasingly power-mad General Zod (Michael Shannon) These scenes are substantially aided by the fact that Krypton is rendered beautifully as the ultimate sci-fi planet.

Goyer also keeps things moving via a multiple flashback structure that toggles between the young Clark Kent and the present-day action. Young Kent finds that his enhanced senses can drive him crazy and that his superstrength renders him a freak. Given Nolan’s work on the Dark Knight movies, the notion of a tormented Superman shouldn’t surprise us. But the whole idea of Superman, as conceived by two comic book artists almost a century ago, was rooted in optimism, and to their credit, the creators of the movie don’t forget that; they just make optimism a more difficult place for Kal-El to get to.

Surprisingly, in this iteration of the origin story, intrepid reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) gets to know a drifting, bearded, do-gooding stranger before she meets the Clark Kent who also works at the Daily Planet. One big digression the movie takes is making Lois privy to Clark’s “secret” right from the get-go.  The move not only make sense, but it spares us a lot of silliness down the line.

Even though some of the attempts at gravitas don’t work, the movie does make you believe that a flying man in tights is a thing of scary awe and with a superb all-around supporting cast, Man of Steel blasts the archetypal superhero into our uncertain new century in high style, neither selling him out nor making a sap out of him.

I, for one, am looking forward to the next installment already.

Star Trek Into Darkness: live long, prosper

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Star Trek Into Darkness’ is a brisk, no-nonsense sci-fi action sequel built around a conflict between the crew of the Starship Enterprise and a slick, slippery new villain called John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch).

Director JJ Abrams revived the Star Trek franchise back in 2009 by taking it back in time (in Trekkie terms, that is; it’s still the future for us), pumping it with wit and style and giving life to younger versions of Captain Kirk, Spock, Scotty and the rest of the space geek dream team. Here, the main focus is internal strife, rather than structural revolution, as Kirk and Spock get catty with each other and Harrison emerges as a disgruntled insider bent on domestic terrorism.

The most striking scenes come without doubt at the start as Kirk (Chris Pine) struggles to rescue Spock (Zachary Quinto) from a volcano on a distant planet. We witness a primitive race – carefully colour-coded all white, yellow and red – as they first lay eyes on a spaceship. It’s a powerful moment, and nothing later matches up to it, even if two episodes of city-bashing (first London, then San Francisco) offer their fair share of wide-eyed 3D viewing.

The revived Star Trek films are shaping up to be the opposite of Christopher Nolan’s Batman tales in that they’re light on bleakness and attitude. There are enough gags (Simon Pegg is fun again as Scotty) and wit (the tension between Kirk and Spock is winning) between darker bouts of space fighting and ship-saving to keep the mood airy and unpretentious.

Only when we’re treated to a gratuitous, over-the-shoulder underwear shot of Alice Eve as the Enterprise’s new recruit does this breeziness tip into recklessness. It’s here that we sense the filmmakers’ worry that the whole thing might be a bit too boyish and sexless. That said, the script manages to introduce some thoughtfulness into proceedings via Spock’s morose musings on death and feelings (or lack of them).

All in all, it’s a welcome offering to the franchise that won’t leave send you home disappointed.

Skyfall: The last rat standing

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The 23rd installment of the Bond franchise, Skyfall, is perhaps the smartest, slickest, most sensational Bond outing yet, with the lord of the spies grappling with changing times, the limitations of his own battered body, and a super-villain who spreads cyber-terror through a digitized network of global computer hackery.

After an audaciously thrilling pre-credit sequence (that reportedly took three months to film) in which Bond pursues a bad guy across the sprawling rooftops of Istanbul on motorcycle before finally coming to blows atop a speeding train, the movie settles into its groove. Someone has stolen a computer drive with information that could compromise the entire British Secret Service, and M (Judi Dench), Bond’s boss, becomes the target of a mysterious psychopath (Javier Bardem) with chillingly personal reasons for his mad rampage.

On a tropical hiatus due to his presumed death, Bond returns to Her Majesty’s service after hearing that M is in danger. But circumstances dictate that he has to reapply to get his old job back. That includes re-passing the fitness test – a harder task than expected, leaving Bond huffing and puffing and nursing his recently banged-up shoulder.

“It’s a young man’s game,” Bond’s reminded by Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), the bureaucrat in charge of hauling the British espionage division into the 21st century.

Seeing if 007 is up for the job will keep you glued to your seat as the plot shifts from London to Shanghai and finally to the moors of Scotland for an emotionally charged stand-off where Bond must not only defend the empire, but also confront his own past.

Director Sam Mendes integrates sweeping action, solid characters and spectacular scenery to the long line of Bond pop-culture mythology while Craig manages to unearth facets of the Bond character that other actors have simply never found before.

Bad-guy Bardem, so memorable as the creepy killer in No Country For No Men, also works well in his role as soft-spoken sadist Silva – a swishy, blonde-haired demon who taunts Bond with the prospect of England’s old cloak-and-dagger crumbling underneath his new world order of servers and software.

Skyfall manages the hard task of striking a respectful balance with the movies that have gone before, while also taking the character and the franchise into new and exciting territory.

If the next Bond movie is going to be as good as this, then lets just hope we don’t have to wait another four years to see it.

http://youtu.be/6kw1UVovByw

The Avengers: an absolute Marvel

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With Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises and Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spiderman still to hit cinemas, it’s looking like a definitive year for superhero movies as The Avengers storms the big screen and wins over critics across the globe.

The premise of the movie is simplistic – bad guy Loki hatches world-domination scheme, petulant but kind-heated good guys swoop in to save the day, Scarlett Johansson in leather looks damn hot. But somehow, somewhere along the way, it becomes a lot more than that.

Six gifted and special people, Iron Man (Downey Jr), The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), have to come together despite their differences to stand against Loki, a Norse deity hell-bent on ruling the earth with an iron fist.

Usually, movies that feature an abundance of big name stars are not to my taste. Take, for example, New Year’s Eve or Valentine’s Day – lots of stars, not a lot of substance. The Avengers, I’m happy to report, is nothing like either of those films.

The cast, which features Hollywood A-listers such as Robert Downey Jr, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Samuel L Jackson and Gwyneth Paltrow, meld fantastically with each other and with the storyline.

Prior to The Avengers, we saw Iron Man 1 and 2, The Incredible Hulk, Thor and Captain America. Each of these films, while not to be seen as prequels, did indeed do the job they were created to do – they gave the main Avengers depth, backstory, and character while being box office success stories in their own right. Granted, Black Widow and Hawkeye were left out of this process and, as such, weren’t developed as much as they could have been, but I see that as an unfortunate casualty of an otherwise fantastic development process.

Though I do genuinely love this new method, I have to note that some of the previous Marvel Movies weren’t quite up to scratch. It seemed as if the Captain America installment was not as thought out as either Iron Man or The Hulk and that it was only there to fill the gap until the 2012 release of The Avengers. I also thought that Thor, though it was a joy to behold 114 minutes of Chris Hemsworth, was a bit of a let down in places.

But whether it’s down to the previous films, the stellar cast, or Joss Whedon’s scriptwriting prowess, The Avengers itself is clearly the best
Marvel Movie to date. The acting is near impeccable, the action is raw and the jokes are hilarious. Stark is his usual cheeky self, Bruce Banner is broodingly deep and Thor is just as beautiful as he ever was. There’s also something disturbingly attractive about terrifically entertaining Asguard bad boy Loki played by the fantastic Tom Hiddleson who, according to many critics ‘steals the show’.

Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk was also a breath of fresh air in this sneakily unique heavy hitter. He gives his character more depth than either Eric Bana OR Edward Norton (something I never thought I’d admit) and is both endearing and heart-wrenching in his portrayal of Bruce Banner. Instead of going for the “woe is me, I get angry and smash things” angle, his manner and acting style hint towards a deeper, more depressing self-loathing.

What I like about the film, is that it deviates from the traditional ‘Good vs Evil’ trend just the right amount. There’s the bad guy, obviously, and the quest to save humanity… but there’s also some interesting in-fighting and tension between avengers. It’s clear that they all come from different moral standpoints, and I think Joss Whedon did a great job using that to his advantage.

I also like the fact that it does exactly what it says on the tin. Here’s a Marvel Movie for people who like action movies, for people who like Marvel Comics, for people who always played the “Who would win in a fight…” game and, of course, for people who want to drool over Chris Hemsworth and Scarlett Johansson.

If you see nothing else this month, go see this. You won’t be disappointed.

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