Man of Steel (Review)

Contains spoilers.


The Superman franchise is one I’ve never previously had any interest in.  I’m not a great fan of the superhero genre as a rule – or at least, the generic Marvel/DC template which dominates the genre – but Superman always seemed exceptionally intolerable to me.  An unbeatable man who can do anything, only weakened by a metal which doesn’t even exist on Earth?  There’s really very little (interesting) that can be done with the concept.  But still, I thought, I’d better watch it for myself to truly judge the concept, so today I went to see Man of Steel, directed by Zack Snyder.  …Oh boy, was I right.

I suppose I ought to start with the positives.  Most of the opening half hour or so was really enjoyable to watch.  The planet Krypton was revealed in a glory of computer-generated splendour and I actually felt invested in the characters, largely thanks to the great acting by Russell Crowe (aka the best singer of Lés Miserablesand Ayelet Zurer.  I was with the characters, desperate for their plan to send their baby Kal-El to a far-off world to save it from the planet’s destruction.  The moment the planet did explode was even rather moving.  This whole sequence was beautifully directed – along with most of the film – and gave me high hopes for the rest of the film.  If only it had stayed like this…

There were other aspects of the film I liked.  The acting all-round was pretty good: Henry Cavill is decent as Clark, the character’s failing not being a result of the acting, while Amy Adams played Lois Lane well (again more than can be said for the writing; she starts off a feminist because, you know, she continually mocks men through her first scene – but gradually her independence erodes and she relies more on Clark).  Clark’s adoptive parents were also well-acted, if generic, and Laurence Fishburne has improved since The Matrix now his character actually has a personality.  General Zod, unfortunately, is too great a mesh of testosterone and military stereotypes to be, uh… oh…

Yeah, positives didn’t go so well.  One of the most distracting elements of the film was its fragmented plotting.  After the glorious opening sequences we’re subjected to constant switching between Clark’s upbringing to random moments in his progression to becoming the Superman.  This would be fine if the scenes were made clear to be flashbacks, but they weren’t, which left me wondering where each scene fitted in to his life.  To be fair, most of these scenes judged individually were fairly good but they just didn’t slot well into the film as a whole – with the exception of his father’s death, which showed Clark to be a heartless monster for doing nothing and his father to be a saint – a superman himself, if you will.  This issue of structuring had a particular impact upon Clark and Lois’ ‘relationship’ – they’re barely acquaintances throughout the film but suddenly kiss at the end because… that’s what’s supposed to happen?  This happens a lot, actually – the script will demand something happens so the film can go through the superhero genre motions, but it often feels forced.  Then the whole thing really collapsed the moment he put on that ridiculous cape and begin to fly – the moment he became Superman, basically – and the film never recovered.

Quite simply, the concept of Superman doesn’t work for me.  His abilities are supposedly endless but the most significant ones are flight, super-strength, super-speed, super-thought – and laser eyes for good measure.  Ignoring the science (he can fly because gravity is stronger on Krypton?  That explanation is painful), from a literary sense this ruins the character because he is not someone who can be defeated.  He can barely even be challenged.  His one weakness is to be removed from Earthlike conditions which, since he’s invincible, is pretty hard to do.  It only happens in Man of Steel when Zod threatens to wipe out humanity.  He also supposedly becomes weaker when flying near the terraforming machine – despite the fact the film has already made clear terraforming doesn’t work like that!  It’s not a bubble expanding outwards, rather changing the conditions of the planet as a whole.  So really, he’s pretty undefeatable.  Now, this could have interesting connotations – the struggle of such powers, the morality of any individual becoming a God – but instead Clark is so perfect with his chivalry and American values that it’s just incredibly dull.  This also results in easy plot resolutions: did he really defeat the terraforming device by flying through it to make it explode?  My word, that’s lazy.

Like any blockbuster, the main focus of Man of Steel was the action scenes.  This is occasionally bearable if the action scenes are interesting, which was not the case here.  Most of the second half was comprised of endless shots of various characters flying about, punching one another, zipping through buildings and causing intense destruction.  It became repetitive after a minute, let alone 30.  Granted, still better than The Matrix (though it’s a tough one!).  You’d be better off going to see a wrestling match; as much is achieved in less time and the result no less pre-ordained.  I left the cinema wondering, quite simply, why had I wasted that last hour of my life to watch money be wasted on endless sequences of pointless violence?  It’s as if there was an ‘action scene quota’ – I’d finally breathed a sigh of relief when Clark destroyed Zod’s spaceship, only for Zod to have miraculously survived – uh, somehow – and another inspid fight ensued.  The climax where Clark was distraught over the possible death of a family by Zod’s laser vision felt utterly unconvincing considering how many innocents he’d allowed to die by fighting in an urban area, by bringing skyscrapers crashing down and debris falling everywhere, by flying through a petrol station and causing it to explode – oh, I forgot, in blockbuster land you can have limitless destruction without any such moral qualms.  How silly of me.

Man of Steel is a mind-numbingly poor film at times.  It’s so dull that I’ve even struggled to find interesting pictures for this review!  The first half is moderately decent and it is saved by skilled direction from time to time, but the endless violence and repetitive action completely destroys the film.  I’m getting so sick of blockbusters – I think I’ll do my utmost best to avoid any more this year.  And I still need to be convinced that there’s a superhero film worth watching.  The Watchmen – also by Snyder – looks interesting, at least, though not a candidate to solve my issue with gratuitous violence.

Final rating: 4/10

Doctor Who: The Reign of Terror (Review)

Contains spoilers.

The Reign of Terror (1964) is one of those stories which holds a position of high respect within the Doctor Who fans’ collective psyche, as often happens to those unfortunate stories which  could not escape the jaws of misguided BBC decisions in the 1970s intact.  Two of its six episodes no longer exist after being wiped in order to create more filming space.  Fortunately, audio recordings exist for every Doctor Who episode filmed in the 60s, and though these can be poor quality they do give an insight into how the episodes were directed.  The announcement that this story would be animated was greeted with wide excitement.  I particularly looked forward to seeing it, considering my utter fascination with the historical period of revolutionary and post-revolutionary France between 1789 and 1871, previously satisfied by Les Misérables.  So I had high expectations for this story.

Unfortunately, myth is destined to always trump fact, and I ended up being slightly let down by the story.  The first disappointment was the plot, which begins slow and uninspiring and struggles to develop into something more meaningful.  The TARDIS lands The Doctor, Susan, Barbara and Ian in France, 1794, during the final days of the violent period dubbed ‘The Reign of Terror’ where radical republicans and revolutionaries, within less than a year, executed tens of thousands of ‘enemies of the revolution’ with the dreaded guillotine.  The characters find themselves caught up in these bloody events, first during the siege of a house used as a base by counter-revolutionaries which ends in bloodshed and flames, and then forced by circumstance into joining a group of monarchists and counter-revolutionaries.  These events signify the tone of the historical period they’re in, although the story frequently seems to forget this.

This all sounds promising, but unfortunately very much of the story is spent getting in and out of prison, which serves as the main setting for the story, or collaborating with the opposition whilst not achieving very much.  There’s just too much padding.  The plot does develop half way into the story, as the treacherous nature of the period is encapsulated by Léon’s betrayal of Ian and various attempts to reunite and escape during the final rebellion against Citizen Maximilien Robespierre’s tyrannical rule.

I did enjoy the historical characters very much.  Despite my interest in the period I have never really studied it, so knew little of Robespierre before watching, though it inspired me to do research afterwards.  I did, however, have a bit of a history-nerd moment when Napoleon Bonaparte walked into that backroom of the pub in episode 6.  Napoleon!!  Way before he became Emperor of France, back when he was simply a popular general.  That was very exciting.

As ever, I must look at this episode through the lens of a historian, and I’m afraid I don’t think the episode quite managed to develop the historical debate to a great enough extent. Doctor Who‘s a family show, so I guess that’s to be expected.  It’s just, the narrative does seem to suggest that ‘Republicans are bad’ ‘Monarchists/counter-revolutionaries are good’.  Well, in this context the ruling, extreme republicans were undoubtedly wrong to create such a dictatorial, oppressive regime, though they believed themselves to be in the right.  But essentially, the French Revolution marked the rise of Liberalism in Europe and an end to the absolute monarchy that could treat its citizens in any way it wished.  The Reign of Terror was a blip which inevitably occurs during the forced transition to democracy (see also: The Soviet Union, Hitler, current violence in Egypt, etc).  I just don’t believe this is an issue which can be cleanly divided between noble ‘heroes’ and villains’.  If you think about the monarchists, they want to impose a system upon the French people in which one person, typically a male, is born into supreme power.  How is that fair?  I suppose they could be constitutional monarchists, preferring a semi-democratic system like we have here in the UK rather than a full blown republic.  It’s never made clear.  This is somewhat rectified towards the end of the story, particularly during Barbara’s rant about the republicans not being ‘all bad’, which eases some of my issues.

Another historical problem was the fact that the characters seemed to be actively fighting against the Reign of Terror and actively willing to work with the counter-revolutionaries.  This jars, considering the issue of changing history was explored in much depth merely two episodes ago in The Aztecs, where the moral was quite clearly to not be involved.  Again, just as I’m finding this inaccuracy really distracting, it’s brought up by the characters themselves, although they still don’t really resolve the issue.

The characters and acting were all wonderful, as usual.  I particularly enjoyed William Hartnell’s acting as the Doctor, dressing up in that ridiculous ‘provincial official’ costume.  Some minor characters were rather two-dimensional, including the prison officer and some of the counter-revolutionaries, but generally they were well written.

I can’t finish this review without a comment on the animation.  Necessary for episodes 4 and 5, I should say first that I am incredibly grateful the animation exists at all.  I long thought that The Invasion would remain the only ‘lost’ story ever to receive animation, the the fact that The Reign of Terror and, soon, The Tenth Planet have also been animated is wonderful.  Despite this, I have to say that I think there were some very, um, interesting creative decisions taken by the animating team.  They do successfully create 3D likenesses of the characters who interact within living, breathing settings.  The characters’ movements are as fluid as could be expected.  In fact, I might say that they’re too fluid.  To prevent the characters from coming across as too rigid and ‘cartoony’, the animators seem to have gone over the top in animating every facial muscle possible whenever a character speaks, or is even on screen.  The facial muscles work well – just far too often!  You’d be forgiven for thinking someone had let off a batch of nerve gas.  And some of the editing is rather strange.  It’s been described as edited to a modern standard, which supposedly clashes with the 1960s style of editing the rest of the story has, but the constant cutting between shots every second or so, close ups of mouths and eyes, etc. is more bizarre and dizzying than even the fast-paced shows we have today.  I appreciate that to gaze upon an image of the animation for too long would betray their stillness (twitching aside), but again the jumping from shot to shot goes too far.  I hope Thetamation, the animation company, can learn from this and work out the issues to make a really good recreation for The Tenth Planet.

Overall, The Reign of Terror is a good story but not quite on the level I had hoped.

Final Rating: 6.5/10

Les Miserables (2012 Film) Review

Contains Spoilers.

I have to admit it: I’m not a great fan of musicals.  The bombastic musical numbers, stereotypical jazz hands and lack of realism usually grate heavily on me.  I’ve never seen classics such as Grease or Mamma Mia, and I never plan to, since I have no interest in watching clichés in action.   But Les Miserables was always clearly going to be different.  I didn’t know much about it, other than being set during revolutionary France – which, honestly, is alone enough to sell a film for me – and that it features much misery.  And I’d heard glowing reviews for it.  So, I thought I’d go see it;  this was not a mistake.

At 157 minutes in length, my intolerance of sitting through whole films was sure to be tested to its limit, much as it was during my viewing of The Hobbit.  I had no reason to fear, for the film was a thoroughly engaging experience from beginning to end, and I only looked at my watch four times – low for my standards!  This is in part due to the very interesting way in which the film tackles the plot.  It’s set primarily across three time periods: 1815, 1823 and 1832.  In 1815, Jean Valjean has just been released from servitude for the crime of stealing bread, and the story covers his refusal to report for parole and attempts to escape from capture by the policeman Javert.  The events of 1823 include Valjean, now a successful businessman, continuing to avoid Javert; his worker Fantine’s descent into poverty, prostitution and eventually death; and Valjean’s adoption of Fantine’s daughter, Cosette.  In 1832 the events of the failed June Rebellion play out and brings together every character.  More a tribute to the original Victor Hugo 1862 novel than this adaptation, the plot skillfully develops the characters and themes, perfectly intertwining them together.  Not until the final twenty minutes does Les Miserables begin to feel repetitive and dragged out, and even here the film is such an enjoyable watch that I hardly noticed.

The acting is terrific.  Hugh Jackman is the undeniable star as Valjean, hardly identifiable as the same actor between 1815 and 1832.  I actually was quite confused about who was whom to begin with, partly down to my inability to instantly recognise faces but also due to his incredible acting.  Russell Crowe is good as Javert, and I’m just going to admit that I liked his singing, too.  This might not mean much coming from someone who enjoys atonal music (I suspect I’m slightly tone deaf) but I don’t understand all the negativity towards his performance.  The entire cast seemed so perfect in their roles that unless you’re an experienced music critique (I’m not) then it isn’t worth mentioning everyone individually.  The only characters I didn’t enjoy were Thénardier and his wife, played by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter.  This wasn’t down to their acting, I just found their comedy roles grating and went against the tone of the film.

In terms of writing, I was heavily impressed by the development of the characters.  To praise him again, Valjean must be one of the most realistic, developed and three-dimensional characters in the history of literature.  The fact that this comes across in a musical is truly remarkable.  Fantine, Marius and Éponine are, likewise, also developed to an astonishing degree.  Less so is Cosette, who while excellently portrayed as a child feels underdeveloped as a teenager.  This is largely down to the ‘love at first sight’ method of introducing her romance with Marius, where they look at each other and are suddenly a couple.  For such an important feature of the story, there’s not much excuse for this – particularly considering the high standard of everything else.

I’m torn over the film’s depiction of historical events.  While someone without a knowledge of French history between 1789 and 1848 will undoubtedly allow most historical references to go over their head, I’m debating whether this is a bad thing.  The film is not worse for omitting explanations of who the monarchs were, of leaving no reference to the 1830 revolution only two years previous to the events in 1832, or for lacking much mention of the Napoleonic Wars.  I have located one area which could have had a bit more development however.  It’s never clear precisely why the students want to get rid of the monarchy; while there are mentions of “King after King” being no better than each other, and the social environment definitely shows how a revolution would be desirable, perhaps another line or two wouldn’t go amiss – it almost seems like a student project for some Practical Politics degree.

Most of my comments may be more suited to a critique of the novel – which I plan to read someday – so I need to mention the music.  From the very beginning, it’s apparent that the music is utterly fitting and beautiful.  Whether singing in desperation, (such as Fantine’s famous ‘I Dreamed a Dream’), resolve (‘Valjean’s Soliloquy’), love (‘A Heart Full of Love’), sadness (‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’) or hope (‘Do You Hear the People Sing?’), each song is a heart-swelling wonder.  Even Javert’s ‘Stars’ and ‘Javert’s Suicide’ I enjoyed.  The only song which grated was ‘Master of the House’, for the same reason I didn’t like the Thénardiers which I mentioned above.  Outwith the context of the film the soundtrack stands up as nothing short of brilliance.  Particular standouts are ‘I Dreamed a Dream’, ‘On My Own’, ‘One More Day’ and ‘Do You Hear the People Sing?’.

The direction was also completely captivating.  Tom Hooper really brings the historical setting alive with wide, sweeping shots interspersed with close ups which bring the intensity of emotion directly to the viewer.  Mark Kermode commented on the wisdom of avoiding medium shots, to truly create an experience which would be impossible to witness in a theatre.  The shot which pans down on 1832 Paris, past the elephant, has to be my favourite moment in the film.

Les Miserables is a film which has refused to leave my thoughts since I saw it.  I’m possessed by a fervent desire to re-watch it, which is always a good thing.  The characters, the music, the setting… Virtually everything is perfect.  By far it’s the best film I’ve seen for a while, and I would highly recommend it.

Coming Soon: Les Miserables (musical) review & Les Miserables (novel) review.

Final Rating: 9.5/10