Tag Archives: films

Man Of Steel: My sort-of review (contains spoilers!)

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This post contains spoilers. Lots of spoilers, particularly about the ending of the film. You might not want to read on until you’ve seen the movie.

I’m sitting in the Odeon cinema in Derby, about five minutes before Man of Steel is due to start. I’ve seen the trailers, I’ve read the tweets, I’ve seen geek culture offer up almost every imaginable opinion about the film. And you know what? At this point, all I really want is for Superman to hit a bad guy with a bus.

I mean, what do I want – what do I expect from a Superman movie? He’s a pop culture icon, and because of that we develop our own conception of the character. It’s not DC Comics or Warner Brothers that define Superman, not really, it’s each of us, every die-hard fan having their own image in our heads made up of bits and pieces from comics and movies and TV and all the cool ideas we have that no-one else has thought of. Man of Steel isn’t going to live up to that – I guess the question is, as I watch a trailer for The Lone Ranger, what’s the film going to add to my Superman mythos?

The thing about Man of Steel, two-and-a-half-hours later, is that while it ‘s a Superman film, it’s not a film about Superman. It’s about the generation before him, their competing visions of the future and how those visions play out in the lives of Earth’s inhabitants. Is Zod right to want to preserve his world at all costs? Is Jor-el right to see his son as the embodiment of his own rebellion? Is Jonathan right to want Clark to keep his powers a secret? These questions drive the story more than Clark’s search for a place in the world, to the extent that at times the film feels like an extended prequel for a character study of Supes.

I hope we get to see that, because Henry Cavill is great – good enough not to be trapped in Chris Reeve’s shadow. His joy at finding he can fly is lovely – the sort of reaction Superman should have. We don’t get to see a Clark/Supes distinction – deliberately so – but I think Cavill could handle it, heading up an impeccable cast. That said, Michael Shannon’s mad-eyed intensity steals the show. Look, I thought Terence Stamp insisting everyone should kneel before him was legendary, but I’m sorry, there’s a new Zod in town and he punches his enemies through skyscrapers.

That spectacle is a real strength – this is the best superhero battle since Justice League Unlimited and that was animated. Sure the visuals are over the top, but this is a comic book movie, things should be turned up to 11. And frankly, Zack Snyder is the first director who seems to realise he should give us a reason to care that Krypton blows up, serving up some pulp sci-fi wonder and a badass Jor-el.

That’s one of the issues Snyder deals with – the other is making sure Lois doesn’t look like an idiot by letting her in on the Secret almost from the start. I could go another 75 years without seeing Lois fail to notice who Clark is again, and Man of Steel sidesteps that before you even realise they’ve done it. She’s also proactive and confident and she shoots bad guys with a death ray. Awesome.

But there’s always controversy. Normally I don’t mind that – I don’t care if Perry’s black or if Jimmy Olsen now seems to be Jenny; let there be change. But there is a moment that rips through my image of Superman and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. Clark kills Zod, and while it’s to save innocents and he’s clearly devastated by it, it’s still a moment I’m uncomfortable with. Superman doesn’t kill, and while I’ve justified it to myself – it’s a set-up for a more character driven sequel, it’s the sort of thing that could fuel a future confrontation with Lex, but somehow that feels like fansplaining. I hope it’s not, especially if this is going to be the foundation for DC’s cinematic universe.

A while back, this would have been the main thing I took away from Man of Steel – I’d’ve debated it and got annoyed by it and insisted that Hollywood doesn’t get Superman. But now… Well, there’s a moment in which the young Clark has just discovered he’s adopted – that he’s not even from Earth. He turns to the man who raised him and asks “Can’t I just pretend I’m still your son?” “You are my son!” comes the reply, and that still gets me, even as I’m typing this.

Maybe it’s because I’m a new-ish stepdad, maybe it’s because I’m getting old and relating to fathers rather than sons, but… There’s just so much there, love and compassion and identity and fear, and so much of the film is tied up with the things parents want for their children, whether they’re from Kansas or Krypton. And it’s that moment that sticks with me, because ultimately I don’t want a film or even a favourite superhero that resonates with my comic collection, I want one that resonates with my life. That’s what Man of Steel adds to my Superman mythos – not just a new favourite Krypton, not just deranged superhero spectacle, not just a better role for Lois, but a moment that actually makes me relate to a story I’ve been following for years, a moment that gives voice to a bunch of feelings and hopes in my own life. That’s more than most movies offer, even ones I love.

Thank you Superman.

A Tribute To Star Wars

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May the Fourth be with you! Ha ha!

The Star Wars movies are some of my all-time favourite films. Of course they are – I was born in 1976, and therefore Star Wars (I refuse to call it A New Hope), The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi are some of the fundamental stories of my childhood. Not only the films either; they were the first movies that really pushed the merchandising side of film-making, and so I had a substantial collection of Star Wars toys – the first one I acquired, second hand, was one of the third-stringers, an Imperial officer who got Force choked by Darth Vader, but I moved up the ladder. Heck, I had an X-Wing Fighter. I had the Millennium Falcon!

My grandmother wasn’t impressed by all this. A lot of the characters in the trilogy are pretty much grotesque, and if I was ever ill for no apparent reason, Nan blamed Chewbacca and the others. Medically speaking this was unfair, although a couple of George Lucas’s decisions over the years have made me feel ill if that counts..

Nah, as a kid in the early eighties, it was the aliens, robots and hardware that made Star Wars cool. Nowadays it’s easy to appreciate other aspects of the films, like how Harrison Ford becomes a megastar before your very eyes (“I love you!” “I know.” is one of the coolest moments in sci-fi history), or how there seems to be a whole back-story to the whole thing (I have a friend who thinks the Expanded Universe is better than the films; I don’t altogether agree, but it’s a fair position to take), or how good the costume design in Return of the Jedi is, but back in the day it was all about comedy robots, cool spaceships, and light sabers.

That covers a lot of its appeal – it’s not a science fiction film, not in the strictest sense of the definition. Science fiction, as a genre, is about technology and scientific potentialities and their imagined impact on humans. That’s not really Star Wars. Sure it’s set in space, but that doesn’t really make it science fiction, and while the hardware is seriously cool, that’s pretty much all it is. No, Star Wars is a fantasy movie set in space, complete with naive farmhands, princesses, comedy servants, wizards, swords and magic. It’s got the trappings of sci-fi, and it owes a massive debt to early movie serials like the Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon adaptations, but at its heart it’s a fantasy movie with spaceships, and I think that’s a key component of its success. Fantasy, at least in the fairy tale guise that Star Wars taps into, is a bit more accessible than full-on science fiction; I think that’s a big part of Doctor Who’s success as well.

Another reason for the success of Star Wars is the way in which it lends itself to fandom; George Lucas has given his approval to fan films like Troops (Cops with Stormtroopers, basically – you can also join the 501st Stormtrooper Legion if you want ), you can have long arguments about why Chewbacca doesn’t get a medal when he did just as much work as anyone else, and you can sing along to Livin’ La Vida Yoda if you’re feeling musical. Never under-estimate the importance of fandom fodder to the success of all things culturally geek.

A lot of this is rose-tinted glasses – there are aspects of the original trilogy that look pretty dated nowadays – but at the same time it’s hard to see many blockbusters coming along nowadays that have half the impact of Star Wars; they may make more money, but I can’t see people cosplaying Avatar or Titanic in thirty years time. Or maybe, and again this is rose-tinted glasses time, there was a moment in cinema, late seventies to mid-eighties, that saw the release of a bunch of blockbusters that caught the imagination of audiences; Star Wars, yes, but also the Indiana Jones films, Back to the Future, Ghostbusters… Star Wars, to me, just seems to be the king of that movement. Or maybe it’s just because I loved all those movies as a kid.

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That’s the key, I think – Star Wars is for kids. And, of course, for adults who can accept it’s for kids and enjoy it because of that. And yet it’s also for the kids who once watched it on BBC or ITV every Christmas, and who had all the toys; for the kids who grew up and sold those toys because they grew out of them, even though they kick themselves because of what those toys are now worth to collectors; for the kids who, somewhere along the line, realised that, actually, there’s no point in growing up if you can’t pretend to have a light saber fight once in a while.

Because, for me and for a lot of Generation X, part of our imagination will always live in a galaxy far, far away.

A Tribute to Christopher Reeve and Superman

It’s been eight years since Christopher Reeve passed away; in many ways it feels longer. The news of his passing was one of those moments that elicited a visceral emotional response, not just from me but from across the world, not only because he was loved as Superman, but also because of his response to the showjumping accident that left him paralysed.

I don’t like using the word ‘definitive’ in relation to acting – it shuts down the possibility of an equally great interpretation of a role – but Superman was a part Reeve was born to play. Part of that is sheer physical presence – he looked like Superman – but for me, the real magic in his performance is in his sincerity. Let’s face it, the seventies Superman movies can be a little campy in places, but while Gene Hackman is dancing over the top, Reeve is playing it completely straight.

See, Superman can be a difficult character to portray. I love the guy, but there’s a fine line between leadership and patriarchy, between nobility and humourlessness. Reeve achieves this – yes, his Superman is strong and decent and heroic, but there’s also a touch of innocence there, and naivety. The great thing about Reeve’s Superman is that those things become strengths; when Lois asks why he’s here, Superman just responds “I’m here to help”. And he means it. God bless him, he means it. That willingness to take something that’s potentially corny and instead turn it into the moral heart of the movie is the key to Reeve’s greatness in the role.

Or is it? Because he also pulls a fantastic trick in making Clark and Superman genuinely seem to be two different people. The glasses thing is a much-mocked element of the mythos (although for my money, they work as a symbolic thing rather than anything physical), but Reeve made it work. If you want a successful Superman adaptation, you need to get the ‘Clark’ aspects of the character right, rather than focus on the powerful alien stuff, and this is where Reeve really makes the character his own. It’s not really about the cape and the trunks, it’s about the character. Forget that and you’re doomed. Remember it and you get scenes that people talk about for decades to come. Heck, I’m not actually a huge fan of the Reeve movies as movies, but Reeve himself is amazing in them and I’ll always make time to watch him catch the helicopter. It’s an amazing Superman moment.

Thank you, Mr. Reeve.

25 Years of The Princess Bride

Before you read any further, if you’re one of the many people who get directed here trying to find out if Robbie Coltrane is in The Princess Bride, IMDB says he isn’t. But now you’re here, I hope you enjoy the rest of the post.

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Today commemorates the 25th anniversary of one of the greatest films ever made, a tale of romance, heroism, villainy and giants, and is worthy of a thousand blogs. I am, of course, talking about The Princess Bride.

To briefly recap the plot: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy becomes a pirate, boy fights rats, boy rescues girl with the help of a vengeful swordsman and a giant. It’s not particularly complicated but it doesn’t need to be – it’s a fairytale, albeit a slighly snarky and subversive fairytale.

It follows a lot of fairytale traditions, of course, and acknowledges that from the start: the framing device involves a grandfather reading The Princess Bride to his sick grandson. The boy is outaged – he thinks it’s a ‘kissing book’ – but he relents and becomes both audience and commentator to the action. And that’s fair enough, because stories are meant to be interactive, at least to a degree.

(The novel, like the film written by William Goldman, plays with this idea a lot more – the narrator discovers that the original story of The Princess Bride was a political satire and that his own grandfather used to cut out the boring bits when reading it to him. Assume the film as an adaptation of the novel and so many people, both real and fictional, get in on the storytelling action that we never actually get to see the real story. Which is probably for the best, as what we get sounds way better than the original by S. Morganstern.)

The characters are as slippery as the narrative – that’s fair enough, this is a fairytale and its inhabitants are meant to be liminal. A shy, quiet farmboy becomes the biggest badass in town, enemies become allies, disguises are key to the plot, and even the gulf between life and death can be bridged by the semantic difference between the words ‘all dead’ and ‘mostly dead’. After all, this is about storytelling and so language is important: “As you wish” becomes code for “I love you”, we’re reminded that ‘concerned’ isn’t the same as ‘nervous’, and one of the best lines is all about using words you don’t really understand:

“Inconceivable!”
“You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.”

The only thing we can be clear on is True Love, which is eternal and unbreakable, which is the whole point of the movie. You know it’s heading for a happy ending, but that predictability doesn’t matter when the journey’s so much fun.

Because despite my lit-crit wibblings above, The Princess Bride is a really funny film. The casting is spot on (when Harry Potter needed to cast a giant, they called Robbie Coltrane. When The Princess Bride needed to do the same, they got, well, Andre the Giant), and the script is amazing, full of quotable one-liners and punch-the-air declarations if love and revenge. For instance:

You rush a miracle man, you get rotten miracles.”

“This is true love – you think this happens every day?”

“Do you want me to send you back to where you were? Unemployed, in Greenland?!”

“I’m not left-handed.”

“Never go against a Sicillian when death is on the line!”

“Have you ever heard of Plato, Aristotle, Socrates? Morons!”

“Mawage. Mawage is wot bwings us togeder tooday. Mawage, that bwessed awangment, that dweam wifin a dweam…”

“I fight gangs for local charities and stuff.”

“Please consider me as an alternative to suicide.”

“Tyrone, you know how much I love watching you work, but I’ve got my country’s 500th anniversary to plan, my wedding to arrange, my wife to murder and Guilder to frame for it; I’m swamped.”

(The problem with quoting The Princess Bride is that, like Pringles, once you stop, you can’t stop.)

But despite its subversive attitude, the film works because it has heart; declarations of true love may be over-the-top but they’re sincere, and the climactic swordfight between Inigo and the Six Fingered Man features the legendary line “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die”. Apparently actor Mandy Patinkin spat that line at the cancer that killed his father and it shows – he means it. That’s what makes The Princess Bride a classic, towering over other films that go for a similar vibe (like, say, Pirates of the Caribbean). And that’s why people love it.

“Grandpa, maybe you could come round and read it to me again tomorrow.”
“As you wish.”

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International Talk Like A Pirate Day: A Tribute to Steve the Pirate

20120919-084126.jpgAnd so it’s Talk Like A Pirate Day again, and to commemorate this most swashbuckling of days, I’m going to talk about Dodgeball.

I’ll admit it, I love Dodgeball. It has a great cast, it’s funny, and it has the line “If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball!” Chuck Norris is in it; heck, Shatner’s in it.

But my favourite character is Steve the Pirate.

You can’t help but love a character called Steve the Pirate, who wanders a backstreet gym dressed as a buccaneer for no apparent reason. This guy is dedicated – he’s made a life choice and he’s sticking to it, because while it’s eccentric and bizarre, it’s also awesome. Who cares what people think? Steve’s gonna be a pirate and no-one’s going to stop him.

Of course, at the darkest point in the film, when all seems lost and where the forces of body fascism are in the ascendancy, Steve loses sight of this. He cuts his hair, puts on normal clothes, talks like an everyday guy off the street. His dream is killed by a couple of drive-by dumbasses and Vince Vaughan. It’s probably the saddest moment of the movie.

That’s because there’s a Dodgeball spectrum. On one end of this is Ben Stiller’s character, egotistical, image-obsessed, almost fascistic – “We’re better than you!” goes his company motto, monolithic and corporate, impossible to live up to but keep giving us money anyway.

On the other side of things is Steve the Pirate – individualistic, eccentric, true to himself. He talks like a pirate because… Well, we don’t know, we just love that he does it. The fact that he can stop doing it shows that he’s not crazy, he’s just a man who decided one day to live out his dream. That’s worthy of respect, and maybe a little envy. Be true to who you are, even if that means talking like a pirate all day.

Of course, the reason the film gets away with this is because Steve the Pirate is played by Alan Tudyk, who’s great in everything. He’s great playing with toy dinosaurs in Firefly, gets the most emotionally involving moment in Serenity, and he’s the best thing by far to happen to the live-action Transformers franchise. He’s the reason Steve the Pirate works, so this is as much a tribute to Alan Tudyk as it is to the concept of Steve the Pirate. Respect is due.

And so today isn’t just about talking like a pirate. You might not want to talk like a pirate. You might want to talk like a cowboy, or maybe Yoda. And if you do then go for it, because being yourself is important and, frankly, life’s just too short. And yes, I know that’s cliched but it’s also true.

Yarrr!!!