Notes On A Film: Man Of Steel

There has been a lot of response to Man Of Steel, which is to be expected with one of the best known fictional characters in the world and the many different attachments people have to the concept of Superman, so I thought I should add my own – it’s been a week since I’ve seen the movie and it’s taken me that long to compile my thoughts. Herein be spoilers, so fair warning.


Despite my love of comic book superheroes, I’m not a huge fan of Superman. This isn’t a slight on the character or the great creators who have added to the mythos over the years – it’s just never connected with me in the same way as Jerry Seinfeld or Mark Waid (more on him later). I have read and own some Superman stories – the aforementioned Waid and Leinil Yu’s Birthright series, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All Star Superman, and John Byrne’s Man Of Steel post-Crisis reboot (all three of which are referenced in this film – screenwriter David Goyer has written for DC and has good taste in where he borrows elements) – but I don’t have the same attachment for character that a lot of people do. I don’t revere the Christopher Reeve Superman (I have always hated with a passion the ending of the first film), and I quite liked Superman Returns, so my opinion on this film is either tainted or informed, depending on your interpretation.

To summarise my feelings for this film: I think it was a very good sci-fi film that happened to have someone like Superman in it, but it wasn’t a good superhero film. All the rest of the rambling to follow extrapolates on that.

The variation on the Superman story told in this film was an interesting take on the origin – I’m particularly fond of good origin stories, something that superhero characters do well – and it shows contemplation on the nature of the character and an intriguing angle on a well-known story. Using some of Waid’s Birthright approach, this Clark Kent is a wanderer trying to find his place in the world, undecided on his future and unsure of what he can be, albeit with a sense of wanting to help and do good. We see him working on a fishing boat, eventually helping out trapped workers on an oil rig on fire, before moving on to working in a bar and then on a military site in the Arctic that is digging up an unexplained object buried in the ice. This isn’t the bumbling Clark of old; it’s more serious, thoughtful, troubled and perhaps more interesting.

The film starts on Krypton, where an advanced but sterile world (they produce babies in pods, Matrix-style; Kal-El is the first natural-born child in centuries; people are bred to do the job they will perform in society; energy shortages led to mining the planet’s core against the advice of leading scientist Jor-El [Russell Crowe], which is leading to its destruction) is dying and General Zod (a wonderfully intense and purposeful performance from Michael Shannon) attempts a coup to save the planet and the people. The coup fails, Zod and his followers are imprisoned in the Phantom Zone, and Krypton explodes, but not before Kal-El is sent to Earth (along with the Codex, the source of Kryptonian DNA to continue the species). Taking some of its cues from Byrne’s take on Krypton, it looks great – dark and techy and alien, it’s a strong start to a more sci-fi-edged film.

On Earth, the film takes a Batman Begins approach to the Superman story, as we see the grown-up Kal-El (Henry Cavill in a beefed-up and brooding performance that is very good and perfectly suited to this film) on his travels mixed with flashbacks to his youth with Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha (Diane Lane) Kent on the farm in Smallville. Clark is a troubled child, freaked out by the emergence of his X-ray vision, scared by his strength, troubled by his differences. His parents are loving but Pa Kent is worried for his son, knowing what could happen if the world found out about him and what they would do to him, advocating a passive and isolationist life, and not wanting Clark to have saved his class when the school bus crashes into a river (this approach seemed to echo some elements from Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s Superman: Secret Origins).

On the Arctic dig, Clark enters what turns out to be a Kryptonian scoutship nearly 20,000 years old, followed by investigative reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams, who is a really good actress who is perfect for the role of smart, feisty, independent Lane). Using the Kryptonian USB stick from the ship he came to Earth with, Clark is able to access an interactive hologram of his father, who explains who Clark is, where he came from and what he hoped for him (using words from Grant Morrison’s All Star Superman in the process). Inadvertently, he sets off a distress signal which attracts the attention of an escaped Zod, and he saves Lois from an overeager security robot, even using his heat vision to cauterise her wounds. Clark then drops off Lois to be picked up by the military and he flies off with the scoutship, which provides him with the new Superman costume (although how it is in the scoutship isn’t made clear, now why it has the symbol for hope on it, which is the symbol of the House of El and happens to look like an S, nor why it has a cape or the red and blue colour combination when all the Kryptonian clothes have been brown or black).

Clark learns how to fly (one of the few moments of lightness in the film is seeing the goofy grin of joy has he flies for the first time; the film is very, very serious, with hardly any instances of levity or humour) and Lois writes a piece about her ‘superhuman’ rescuer which gets spiked by Perry White (Lawrence Fishburne in a small role), so she leaks it to a website because she feels it is too important. This is unfortunate timing because shortly Zod arrives and demands the surrender of the alien who has been living in secret on Earth, meaning Lois is arrested by the FBI and the military and Clark has to make a decision about his place in the world. At this point we get another one of the Jesus references: Clark has a conversation about what he must do with a priest underneath a picture of Jesus, echoing the conversation in the Garden of Gethsemane asking to have the burden taken from him; there is a pointed mention of Clark being 33 years old, referencing the age of Jesus when he came to the attention of the authorities; previously, Jor-El talks about sending his son to Earth to help them, and later there is Superman in classic ‘Jesus on the cross’ pose, and a quite blatant piece of dialogue when someone says ‘He saved us’. It seems a little unsubtle, but at least Jesus never flew or punched aliens through buildings or destroyed a ‘world engine’ that was terraforming Earth. At least, I don’t remember those parts of the Bible …

Clark now has to man up (or Superman up) and surrenders to the military, and specifically to Lois, which somehow leads to Zod sending down a ship for Clark and a completely unnecessary Lois as well – why an alien general who is going to terraform the planet would need the reporter who first mentioned a superhuman isn’t explained very well in the plot. Unfortunately, this is because the narrative needs Lois to be on board their spaceship so that Clark can give her the Kryptonian USB stick, which she instinctively understands to slot into a hole in an alien spacecraft, so that holographic Russell Crowe can explain how to destroy the Kryptonians, because somehow the recorded brain patterns of a dead scientist are a mixture of AI and imaginative reasoning and planning death scenarios on alien worlds. Apparently. Some of the plotting is a bit hand-wavy, don’t-look-too-closely waffle, including the reason for the Kryptonians wanting Kal-El – they want the Codex to restart the Kryptonian race, which was encoded into the DNA of Kal-El by his father before sending him to Earth, which seems counter-intuitive to Jor-El’s aim of sending him to Earth to start anew and lead the humans into the future. This seems to be par for the course in most summer blockbusters, unfortunately, as they try to have a thematically linked plot engine for the story and leading character.

It’s now we get to the last third of a long movie (it’s nearly 2 hours 30 minutes long) and which is nearly all action, as Superman starts to punch things. And here is where things have divided a lot of people. Firstly, I should point out that Zack Snyder has done a good job of putting a superhero slugfest on film – you feel everything: the knockdowns and the power and the speed and the comic book action – and he makes it look good (although it’s quite dizzying at times because it and the camera are moving so fast; I watched it in 2D because I don’t watch films in 3D, and I can’t begin to imagine what sort of effect it would have on your eyes when watching in 3D). I liked the way his heroes moved in Watchmen and I like the way he does it here – there’s a scene where Superman is in a high-rise office building and the floor is blown out from under him and he hovers in exactly the way I imagine Superman would do in that situation. However, it’s not the choreography that is at issue.

The last part of the film sees Superman fighting Kryptonians in Smallville, a digression to the Indian Ocean to destroy the machine trying to terraform Earth, and then a huge fight with Zod in Metropolis. And in all this time, Superman shows no indication that he’s aware of the colossal property damage he’s inflicting fighting equally powerful people, nor is there any sign that he cares about the civilian casualties that occur around them. There’s no real attempt to take the fights away from populated areas, and it feels very un-Superman. I understand that Snyder and Goyer view this as a raw Superman who isn’t as great as fans of the comic book know him, but it jars with the rest of the film where he’s been wrestling with the issue of saving people despite the problems it would bring. [An aside: I like the idea of Clark’s conflict of emotion at the moment of not saving Pa Kent, on Pa Kent’s instructions, but I felt that ‘saving the dog’ was a very silly way for Pa Kent to die. Your mileage may vary.] Kal-El knows he has the power to save people and wants to save people, so it doesn’t make sense that he shows no hint of that while facing the Kryptonians, and I can understand the negative reaction to this and the massive destruction of a city, which is done because it’s more ‘cinematic’ to demonstrate the powers unleashed on buildings than in a field or in space. They don’t show explicitly any deaths, but it’s obvious that there are hundreds of thousands of casualties, and that doesn’t feel right in a Superman movie.

Then there is the killing (I mentioned spoilers before, right?). Zod has seen his comrades returned to the Phantom Zone, he knows he’s the last of the originals left and that he can no longer do the thing he was born to do (and genetically programmed to do), which is protect the people of Krypton, and so he’s going to kill Superman or die trying. This is a great interpretation of Zod – he’s not a one-note villain; there is a reason for everything – and Shannon does a great job of selling this aspect of the character. And so, after an even bigger slugfest, Zod is threatening to personally kill (instead of accidentally kill, as he has been doing in the slugfest) some humans with his heat vision, putting Superman in the position of having to kill him in order to stop him. In the context of this movie, it is almost logical; however, this is supposed to be a Superman movie, and Superman doesn’t kill. (Yes, Superman killed criminals, or allowed them to die, in the early Action Comics, but that was a long time ago.) And, as the clever Mark Waid (a man who knows a lot about Superman) put it in his blog post about the film, the film doesn’t even build up to this by showing Superman having moral quandaries about the loss of human life or worrying about making the difficult choice; the only reaction (and, admittedly, I did like Cavill’s emotional response) is the roar of anguish after the fatal act, and sobbing into the arms of Lois Lane, who happens to appear in the right place at exactly the right moment in a bit of dramatic licence that ignores the fact that people can barely keep up with the whereabouts of the slugfest and that anyone with any sense would be getting as far away as possible. Again, Snyder and Goyer justify this as this is the reason why Superman never kills because he will forever remember the cracking sound of breaking Zod’s skull, which is perfectly sound logic, but it still leaves a strange taste in the mouth, which is probably why one of the very few jokes in the movie is left to the epilogue.

As I said in my introduction, I think that this is a good sci-fi movie and not a superhero movie. There was a lot I liked. I really enjoyed the first two-thirds of the movie with its interesting take on the Superman character. I enjoyed the fact that Lois Lane is a smart reporter, who actually uses her investigative powers to discover the identity of Superman (Amy Adams is a very good Lois Lane, and I hope she’s back for the sequels). Cavill makes for a very good Superman and he really looks the part (he packed on solid muscle for the role and you get to see it). I liked the little Easter eggs – I noticed the Lexcorp logo on the truck, but I didn’t spot the Wayne logo on the satellite, which was a nice touch. I think the film did a good job of setting things up for future films. I just wish they hadn’t had to go the route of Disaster Porn and Superman Kills.

Rating: DVD (as a Superman film)/DAVE (as a sci-fi movie)

[Explanation of my updated film rating system]

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Notes On A Film: Star Trek Into Darkness

I really enjoyed the Star Trek reboot from JJ Abrams. This is despite the fact that they blew up Vulcan just to emphatically state that this was a completely new Star Trek (not cool, Abrams) and that the villain of the piece wasn’t particularly good. It didn’t have a lot of what made Star Trek so popular in the first place, but it was a film that meant we would get new Star Trek films, so it achieved its aim. And Karl Urban was fantastic as Doctor McCoy.

This meant that I was looking forward to the sequel, even with its silly name, especially with the marvellous Benedict Cumberbatch as the villain. Now that I’ve seen the film, I’m left feeling disappointed and the only way to talk about these disappointments is to discuss the film in spoilerific detail. So please look away if you have yet to see the film and want to view without any prior knowledge, which is the best way to enjoy a movie these days (I only watch teaser trailers, if possible).



It is a truth universally acknowledged that Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan is the best of the Original Series Star Trek films. (The rule of even-numbered Star Trek films was broken with Nemesis. Also, I think that Star Trek: First Contact was the best of the Star Trek films, but that’s another discussion.) It used the history of the series, it used the characters well, it had a great villain, and it had Spock die – it deserves the respect. Therefore, I was always bemused and perplexed when, immediately following the success of the reboot, there was discussion that the sequel would the new Trek’s version of Khan. It seemed the most counterintuitive suggestion I had ever heard – the entire point of the reboot was to establish a completely new Star Trek that would have the characters and the set-up but could do absolutely anything it wanted, so why would it discard any credibility it had by attempting to replicate in its first sequel the best-remembered original Star Trek film? Why would anyone even think about it? It’s absurd. Isn’t it?

I’m a fan of comic books, so I’m used to imagination-lacking decisions to reboot series or universes and rehashing classic old stories in the new version. However, comic books are small potatoes; a film franchise is a multi-million dollar enterprise (if you’ll pardon the pun), so I thought there was no way anything as silly as that could happen with so many people responsible for it. It turns out, I was wrong.

Instead of coming up with a strong story of their own, the creators of Star Trek Into Darkness worked from the standpoint of ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if … we did our version of Khan?’ and little else. The ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if …’ approach was applied everywhere: the opening scene is an exhilarating pre-credits sequence where the crew of the Enterprise break the Prime Directive to intervene in the destruction of a planet, where they hide the Enterprise underwater and stop the planet-destroying volcano with a cold fusion bomb. It looks great (‘Wouldn’t it be cool if … the Enterprise rises out of the water?’) and it’s very exciting, but a spaceship designed for the vacuum of space can’t handle the pressure of water on top of it, and I’m pretty sure that the impulse engines weren’t designed to handle seawater, making me doubt that the ship could actually move. But it looks great, so let’s ignore the lack of logic.

The story, pretty much like the first one, is all about Kirk – after breaking the Prime Directive (Kirk lied on his report but Spock, who nearly died planting the bomb in the volcano, was truthful in his report), Admiral Pike takes away Kirk’s command (for this and other rule-bending) and then it’s all about Kirk maturing into his deserving the command of a spaceship and its crew instead of the lottery win of captainship in the first film. Meanwhile, Cumberbatch has persuaded Noel Clarke to blow up a Starfleet archive in London (future London looks very impressive in this film, consisting of variations on the Shard and the Gherkin), which causes all the top admirals and their first officers (Pike has given Kirk a second chance as first officer on the Enterprise under him) to convene at Starfleet Command to discuss the event, because apparently they don’t have video conferencing in the future, which gives Cumberbatch the opportunity to attack them in one location, killing Pike in the process. (Killing good but periphery characters early in the reboot sequel is becoming a tradition – Irene Adler is needlessly bumped off in the first section of the Robert Downey Jr Sherlock Holmes sequel.) They discover that Cumberbatch has escaped to the Klingon homeworld of Kronos, and Kirk is given permission by Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) to hunt him down and kill him, with the use of 72 long-range photon torpedoes, just in case one isn’t enough because, erm, reasons?

Kirk wants to kill Cumberbatch but eventually decides to capture him and bring him back to justice. They decide to use a shuttle they acquired from the ‘the Mudd incident’ (nice casual reference to past Trek lore) to get him, but they get attacked by Klingons (an aside: I thought the new Klingon design was very cool) – they land so that Uhura can talk them out of it (one of the few incidences of a woman does something strong and brave in the film, unfortunately), only for it to go wrong and for Cumberbatch to save them by killing Klingons with a big gun.

It was at this point that I started to worry about Cumberbatch’s identity, as he singlehandedly takes on Klingons in unarmed combat – I had avoided any discussion or news items about the film beforehand – and, after peacefully surrendering to Kirk, he does admit that he is Khan, the same genetically engineered Khan from the original Star Trek, who had been awakened from his suspended animation by Admiral Peter Weller to design new weapons and ships for Weller’s impending war with the Klingons under threat of killing the rest of his crew. This reveal made me a little nervous (see earlier paragraphs) but I held up hope that they would do something different, something new. I was wrong.

Admiral Peter Weller arrives in his Khan-designed super spaceship to kill everyone to cover his tracks, only for Scotty to shut down its guns and save the Enterprise after luckily sneaking aboard the spaceship after Khan had told Kirk the coordinates for the secret hangar, and Kirk had told Scotty (even though Kirk is in Klingon space and Scotty is back on Earth, they manage to have a normal conversation on Scotty’s communicator – really?). Abrams obviously likes his ridiculous coincidences (see the first film’s ridiculous dumping of Kirk on the same planet that happens to have the future Spock, as well as Scotty). Kirk and Khan team up to take on Admiral Peter Weller (we should have guessed he was evil because he had already played a villain in Star Trek: he was a villain in Enterprise), which sees Weller’s skull crushed by super-strong Cumberbatch, who then gets the super spaceship and attacks Enterprise.

It’s at this point that this film does its remix version of Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan. Instead of Kirk tricking Khan, it’s Spock who tricks him, and it’s Kirk who goes into the radioactive chamber to fix the warp drive to save the Enterprise. It gets worse – Spock comes to talk with him through the window, their hands placed over each other through the window, Kirk does a Kirk version of ‘I am and always will be your friend’ speech before he dies – even though you know that they are not going to kill Kirk in the second film. Then comes the worst bit: instead of Kirk shouting ‘KHAAAAN!’, Spock shouts it when Kirk dies. This is a thing that happened. I couldn’t believe they did it. I felt so sorry for Zachary Quinto – I think he’s great as new Spock, so he didn’t deserve this. Kirk shouting ‘KHAAAAN!’ is a ludicrous moment in the film, especially as delivered by William Shatner in his unique style; it’s a meme, for Rodenberry’s sake. Everyone knows it for its inherent silliness. It should not have been repeated. At all. Someone should have said something at the script stage – ‘Erm, JJ, are we sure about this? Isn’t it a bit silly? Won’t it ruin the scene?’ – instead of making poor Quinto go through the humiliation. It is the apotheosis of the creative bankruptcy of this film, and it depressed me.

The film doesn’t even end here: despite 72 torpedoes going off in the ship, Khan survives and crash-lands the ship on Starfleet and is then chased by Spock and they fight, eventually knocking him unconscious with the aid of Uhura (who they can transport onto a moving platform despite the fact that they state that the reason they can’t transport them up to the ship is because Spock and Khan are constantly moving – WTF?). Then, instead of putting him in prison for his crimes, Khan is put back into suspended animation with his crew – you can see a hint of smile on his face when the camera pans into it. Excuse me? How does that work? How is that a punishment? Meanwhile, Kirk has been saved via Khan’s blood (this is the reason why Spock had to capture Khan) because McCoy had injected some of Khan’s blood in a conveniently dead Tribble on his work desk (a nice shout-out but it such a ridiculous attempt to cover up a ‘this is important for later!’ moment – why did McCoy have a dead Tribble on his desk? Why did he decide to inject Khan’s blood into it?) and discovered its amazing restorative properties, which is used to resurrect Kirk; however, instead of announcing that they’ve discovered a cure for death, it’s completely ignored after they’ve saved a headstrong, reckless, rule-breaking egomaniac. Sigh.

I should counter my negative with mention of some good stuff: Urban is still the best thing in it, throwing out Bones’ aphorisms with delight. Simon Pegg is fun as Scotty, although he does lose the Scottish accent in prolonged dialogues, especially where he has to be angry. Cumberbatch is very good as Khan, exuding power and stillness (although he should have better dialogue for his delicious delivery). The design of the Klingons is pretty neat, both under the masks and the outfits themselves. Zoe Saldana as Uhura gets a couple of good moments, standing up to the Klingons being one, but it’s still pretty much a sausage-fest, with not enough for the girls (and, in the case of Alice Eve’s character, any pretence of having an interesting female character is destroyed when the film shows her in her bra and pants – it’s a scene where she is changing into a spacesuit with Kirk in the room, and she’s told him to turn around, but he turns round to look because he’s pervert; however, instead of viewing Eve from Kirk’s point of view, the camera is looking up at Eve from the point of view of someone at her knees, looking up at an angle, solely for the purpose of displaying her near nakedness in the most gratuitous way, something for which at least Damon Lindelof apologised, realising how wrong it was). The production design is visually spectacular – this film is beautiful to look at and it’s great to have actual sets instead of everything in CGI (disclaimer: I saw it in 2D, so I don’t know what it looked like in 3D or if my comments hold up for that version). The film is very funny on occasion. Sulu got a nice moment to display his toughness.

However, despite the fact that the film is fast paced and exciting and well-made entertainment, I left the cinema disappointed and saddened by the creative bankruptcy at the heart of the story and the loss of the opportunity to do something new and interesting instead of fan service.

Rating: DVD

[Explanation of my updated film rating system]

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DVD: Catching up with films (which everyone else has already seen)

Due to various circumstances, I stopped my monthly subscription to a certain cinema chain that allowed me unlimited watching of films on actual proper film screens, with noisy people using their smartphones and coming in late and everything. This meant that I didn’t see many of the films that were in my area of interests (boo-hoo for developed-world problems). However, when my local Blockbuster (history note for children: Blockbuster was a chain of real-world shops where dinosaurs could rent physical copies of recently produced film in a legal transaction involving money, instead of pirating them) sent me a letter announcing it was closing down but including 10 free rentals if I went to another nearby Blockbuster, I couldn’t refuse the generous offer. Which led to me watching eight films over the Christmas period that were released in the past six months. In alphabetical order, here are some thoughts:

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
On paper, this is a wonderfully silly idea, which is perhaps why it was a book before it was a Timur Bekmambetov film. Taking one of the most famous American presidents and inserting him into an alternative history genre actioner (where the real reason for the Civil War is because vampires want slaves for food) is inherently funny, at least to non-Americans, so it was a shame that the film seemed lacking in humour. The other disappointing factor was the over-reliance on blatant CGI in ridiculously over-the-top action set pieces, such as a young Lincoln fighting a vampire while they chase each other over the tops of stampeding horses. It leaves you feeling sorry for Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Dominic Cooper and Rufus Sewell.
Rating: DA

The Amazing Spider-Man
AKA The Unnecessary Reboot So That Sony Keeps The Franchise, this is a strange concoction. The DVD has deleted scenes that show an almost different movie, with key scenes completely different to those in the film, hinting at something more sinister behind the deaths of Peter Parker’s parents (alluded to in the credit sequence); this along with the muddy plotting of the film suggest a final product unsure of itself. Marc Webb, who directed the utterly charming (500) Days Of Summer, does well with the non-costume stuff, particularly the relationship between Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone (as Gwen Stacy), who are both very good in their scenes together. However, when we finally get into the costume, the set pieces are solid instead of inspiring and the Lizard looks unimpressive, and it turns from a grounded superhero film into the full bonkers stuff of the comic books. I’m glad I didn’t see it in the cinema.
Rating: DVD

The Bourne Legacy
Another unnecessary film, this time trying to continue the Bourne franchise without Bourne himself, having to create another one from scratch (albeit in the shadow of events occurring in the third Bourne film). This is a perfectly serviceable action film, with Jeremy Renner as a fine if uninteresting lead character, but it tries to include too much of what was in previous Bourne films: Tony Gilroy, who directs and co-writes this film, was a co-writer throughout the previous films and seems to duplicate the hallmarks. There’s running over the roofs and through narrow alleys of an exotic city location, there’s brutal close-action fight scenes, there’s an intense motorised chase scene (except this time with motorcycles instead of cars). The film even ends the same as the first film, with our two leads in a sunny location off the grid (although that doesn’t bode well for Rachel Weisz, who plays a scientist involved in the programme who is rescued by Renner – she’ll get killed in the sequel, as happened to Franka Potente, which is the only thing I hate about The Bourne Supremacy), which seems a bit blatant in its echoing. The thing I’m still trying to figure is why Ed Norton was in it, along with Albert Finney, David Straithairn and Joan Allen …
Rating: DVD

When I saw initial details about Brave, I thought that it looked like quite a traditional Disney Princess Movie but done via Pixar, which meant it would look great and be a well-constructed story but nothing unusual. Then the reviews came out, suggesting that it was all right but nothing special. However, there are two things that should be pointed out that alter this perception. First, the film takes a complete swerve about halfway through (which perhaps makes it even more Disney-like) and alters the course of the film, meaning it is definitely not a usual princess film. Secondly, as I recall listening to the feedback Mark Kermode got on his review of the film, the film was reviewed as ‘all right’ by mostly male reviewers, who missed the point entirely: this is a film where the stars are a daughter and mother, and the basis of the film is their relationship, albeit told in a highly original and dramatic fashion. If you’re not moved by the ending, then there is something wrong with you. Brave is not up there with the great Pixar films, but it is a very good film and deserving of your attention.
Rating: DAVE

Men In Black 3
Men In Black II was not very good, which is perhaps why there was such a delay between it and this sequel, which got middling to negative reviews. Apart from my major objection to it – that it completely alters the nature of the relationship between J and K from one where K finds J by accident and J proves he has the stuff to be an MiB agent to something totally different – this film isn’t as bad as you might have heard. Josh Brolin does a great young Tommy Lee Jones (Jones is barely in this film), Will Smith is allowed to do Will Smith again in the sequences set in the past (it’s a film that has time travel in it, which seems out of kilter with the MiB universe, something that is acknowledged within the film), and it’s generally quite fun and light (for example, the fun scene where Bill Hader as Andy Warhol is revealed to be an MiB agent who wants out of his undercover role). It has an underdeveloped role for Alice Eve in love-interest mode, Jermaine Clement is not used to his best in the role of the villain, it has a plot point that is similar to the Doctor Who element where the world is saved by placing something on the Apollo 11 rocket, and it has a rushed feel to it (the film started without a proper script in place), but it manages to hang together enough to sail through on the charm of the familiarity of the lead characters.
Rating: DVD

The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists!
Based loosely on Gideon Defoe’s The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists (the first in his series of books about the characters), this is the first adaptation by Aardman Studios (Chicken Run, The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit, Flushed Away and Arthur Christmas are all original stories) and it’s a lot of fun. With a good voice cast (Hugh Grant stars as the Pirate Captain – all his crew have descriptions instead of names: Martin Freeman is the Pirate with a Scarf; Brendan Gleeson is the Pirate with Gout; Russell Tovey is Albino Pirate; Ashley Jensen is the Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate – along with David Tennant as Charles Darwin and Imelda Staunton as Queen Victoria) and a strong story – the Pirate Captain wants to enter the Pirate of the Year contest but he’s not very good but sees a chance at fame when they capture The Beagle, where Darwin recognises their parrot Polly is a dodo, and enters Scientist of the Year, despite it being in London and proximity to the pirate-hating Queen Victoria. This allows for fun and lots of lovely gags – my favourite being Mr Bobo, Darwin’s trained chimpanzee, who communicates with speech cards, so when he falls down a big hole he releases a large batch of cards with ‘A’ on them – and all the usual Aardman attention to detail. It’s not as good as The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit, but very few things are.
Rating: DAVE

Snow White and The Huntsman
Female characters have got short shrift when it comes to stories over the centuries, particularly in action films and fairy tales, so I’ve no complaint with the recent trend in female action stars and rejigging old stories to put them in a more pro-active role. In this instance, instead of falling asleep and being rescued, Snow White (in the form of Kristen Stewart) is smart and resourceful and ends up leading a rebellion against the evil queen (Charlize Theron) who killed Snow’s father, took the throne and turned the country into a wasteland. It’s handsomely put together (it’s particularly beautiful when they visit the land of the fairies), but it’s not a completely satisfactory film: Stewart isn’t as inspiring as her speech is supposed to be before the charge against the queen (and her strategy is to just charge at a massive castle full of trained soldiers shooting them with arrows and hurling explosive material down on them), you get distracted by trying to identify the famous people playing dwarves (Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane, Ray Winstone, Nick Frost, Eddie Marsan, Toby Jones), and Chris Hemsworth does a dodgy Scottish accent in his role as the huntsman. However, points for a female-led fairy-tale action film that successfully mixes in elements of the story you know to make something new and interesting.
Rating: DVD

Total Recall
A beat-for-beat remake of the original Arnie-starring film (which I kept seeing being described as a ‘classic’ when people were talking about this film – the Paul Verhoeven Total Recall was many things but it was never and will never be a classic), except there is no Mars and we’re in an apocalyptic world where on Britain and Australia are habitable and they are connected by a tunnel through the Earth’s core. Colin Farrell is a better actor than Arnie and there is more doubt that he is an action hero, there is more for the female leads (Kate Beckinsale as the bad woman and Jessica Biel as the good woman) to do, and the production design is fantastic to look at, but it never surprises and never inspires. It also has lots of little homages to the director Len Wiseman’s favourite films (I detected hints of Die Hard and Blade Runner, among others), indicating a lack of imagination on his part.
Rating: DA

[Explanation of my updated film rating system]

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Notes On A Film: Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino is a confident man – confident in his abilities as a film-maker, a scriptwriter, a salesman for his work, and the success of his place in cinema. It is what has allowed him to make relatively few films but at his own schedule, films that are overlong and indulgent but are nevertheless enjoyable, cine-literate mash-ups of exploitation genres. This means that he believes himself when he says that Django Unchained is a film that addresses slavery because of its historical accuracy despite the fact that the film is never going to be treated as a cinematic textbook – there are minor things such as sunglasses, types of guns and the use of dynamite at the time of the film, but the main issue is the total lack of evidence for ‘Mandingo fighting’, the gladiator-like unarmed fights between slaves (if you type ‘Django Unchained historical accuracy’ into Google, you’ll get lots of returns). That’s not a problem – Hitler didn’t die as he did in Inglourious Basterds – but Tarantino can’t have his cake and eat it too, something that Tarantino refuses to see in his self-worshipping blindness. It is this blindness that also prevents Tarantino the director from putting Tarantino the actor in his films – I thought Death Proof would see the last time he was a speaking character, but you should be warned that Tarantino has a cameo in this film, his doughy frame looking out of place on screen, accompanied by a horrible Australian accent. The only thing that redeems this is the manner of the character’s death (it’s not a spoiler warning to say that a LOT of people die in this movie).

This is a very long introduction to my assorted thoughts about Django Unchained, a film that I found more enjoyable than the frustrating Inglourious Basterds and the dull Death Proof, although it is still self-indulgently long (at 165 minutes), takes its sweet time to get to the good stuff and, despite having lots of talking, doesn’t have the same dialogue crackle of Tarantino’s earlier films. However, when it gets to the good stuff, it is deliriously, violently fun and makes the build-up almost worthwhile.

It is two years before the US Civil War (I like how a lot of people have been using ‘antebellum’, meaning pre-war, when describing the timeframe of the move – it’s a good word and it’s nice to see), and Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) is a bounty hunter masquerading as a dentist who frees a slave called Django (Jamie Foxx) in order to locate three men with a bounty on them. They enter into an agreement where they will share the bounties during the winter, after which Schultz will help Django to free his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), from seedy plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), by pretending to be a bored rich man and his freed slaver looking to buy a slave from Candie for the Mandingo fights.

For most of the film, it is almost a buddy picture, as Schultz and Django are rarely apart, with Waltz doing his delightful delivery of Tarantino dialogue and Foxx not speaking as much but looking cool in the process. DiCaprio is good in his role, infusing subtlety within the more pantomime elements of his first villainous role, but he is upstaged by Samuel L Jackson, who plays the house slave at Candie’s plantation – he is wonderfully horrific as a slave who hates blacks as much as whites (he is furious with his master when told that Django will be staying in ‘the big house’, livid that a ‘nigger’ will be sullying his master’s home and requiring that they burn the sheets of the bed where he will sleep). Because this is a Tarantino film, there are also recognisable actors in small roles (Bruce Dern in a cameo, Don Johnson as a plantation owner, Jonah Hill as a member of a proto Ku Klux Klan, Walter Goggins as one of Candie’s workers) as well as James Remar playing two totally different roles in the film for no reason. It also has the homage/self-indulgence of a cameo from Franco Nero (‘with the friendly participation of Franco Nero’), the original Django, which feels very close to the current trend of Hollywood to include a cameo for the original star in the remake.

It is a very violent film – at one point, a slave is torn apart by dogs – and the squibs that explode when people are shot are huge, spitting out pints of blood and chunks of flesh for a single bullet. It’s entertaining violence, not ‘real’ violence, cinematic violence, performed to elicit the visceral response of justifiable revenge in the audience. Near the end, a woman gets shot with a revolver but she is blown away like she’s been hit by a cannon, and your response is supposed to be laughter, in that strange way that Tarantino is able to produce. The enjoyment from all the death that arrives at the end of the film is earned from the believability of Foxx in the lead role, and in his love for his wife – you want them to be together, you want him to get revenge on the people who have mistreated him personally and who have abused slaves for years because of their position in society. This is not a film about American history – this is a film about film history (as Tarantino’s films always are), a beautifully shot exploitation film that leaves you with a big smile on your face.

Rating: DAVE

[Explanation of my updated film rating system]

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Notes On A Film: Lincoln

I don’t know if it’s because I’m British or because my knowledge of history, and in particular American history, is fairly basic but I have been aware of Abraham Lincoln on a fairly shallow level. I know he was assassinated in a theatre, I know he freed the slaves and ended the Civil War, but for the most part I know him as caricature – the tall hat, the silly beard and the speeches (and I’m not just talking about Bill And Ted’s Excellent Adventure or Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which I suppose you could consider the unofficial prequel to this film) – and not as a real person. Daniel Day-Lewis has changed that with his amazing performance as the great man in this well-written and well-directed film looking at a small but important section of his life.

Lincoln the film mostly takes place over a short period of time in January 1865, and is about the behind-the-scenes political wrangling required to find enough votes in the House of Representatives to pass the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution that banned slavery, which was necessary to make the Emancipation Proclamation into law. The whys and the hows are made clear in the film but it doesn’t talk down or oversimplify matters – this is West Wing: The Early Years, where people talk quickly using terms that are not used outside political discussions and in a language that is representative of the time. And there is a lot of talking – this film is mostly men with silly facial hair in rooms having animated discussions about important things, until we reach the climax of the vote in the Capitol at the end of the film. However, it is thoroughly absorbing, as you watch good actors exchange intelligent dialogue in believable settings about a fascinating point in history.

Spielberg is in serious-mode here (see Amistad, Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan) and so keeps a tight control on his Spielbergian flourishes, maintaining an intimate tone to reveal the weight of proceedings. Despite many scenes occurring in small spaces with a necessary sense of crampedness, the film doesn’t feel small or televisual. He matches and enhances the tone of the intelligent script, allowing the events to speak instead of overwhelming them. He also brings out excellent performances from a lot of familiar faces: Tommy Lee Jones is great as Thaddeus Stevens, leader of the Radical Republication faction of the Republican Party and fierce opponent of slavery (and he gets most of the best lines in the film); David Strathairn is typically good as Secretary of State William Seward; Sally Field is excellent as Mary Lincoln, showing her smarts as a political operator and the emotional fragility after the loss of their son without falling into histrionics; and a host of recognisable faces are typically good in other roles (Hal Holbrook, James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson, John Hawkes, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Walton Goggins, Jared Harris).

But it is Day-Lewis who dominates the film. His performance encompasses the entirety of the man and the myth of Honest Abe. He looks taut and thin and walks as if his feet are too heavy in his physicality while the weight of his position and what he is trying to do is evident on his face; he charms people with his storytelling (the anecdote about picture of George Washington in a toilet is great) but he’s also a shrewd political operator when needed, sharp and quick with his understanding and discussion with his lawyer’s skills; he’s an orator, naturally, but also a father and husband, trying to keep his son from fighting in the war for justifiable selfish reason and coping with a wife who almost withdrew from reality due to the death of their son (there is a great scene between the two of them that shows there was life outside of political history). It works to give three dimensions to a character shaded now by history and importance, and is thoroughly deserving of the Academy Award he will no doubt win.

Rating: DAVE

[Explanation of my updated film rating system]

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Notes On A Film: Skyfall

Some belated notes on Skyfall, long after any discussion has finished so I could talk about it with some spoilers, just to get things out of my head. In an interview, Sam Mendes (the first Oscar winner to direct a James Bond movie) talked about the slight influence of The Dark Knight on his approach to directing Skyfall, and how he could make a darker movie with an established cinematic character. The strange thing is that there are other influences of the Christopher Nolan reinvigoration of Batman in the script itself. The main connection is between the bad guy of Skyfall, Silva (played by Javier Bardem with blonde hair and eyebrows) and Heath Ledger’s Joker: they both have the ability to calculate a wide-ranging plan that involves their deliberate capture and other elements that are outside of their control but have predicted will occur based on the knowledge of what the systems will do once they set their plans in motion; this level of predictive power seems to be outside their displayed range of character – the Joker is a psychopath who wants chaos yet somehow shows amazing levels of discipline and research to obtain his goal, while Silva was a secret agent in the field who now displays ‘movie level’ (i.e. completely implausible) hacking skills; there is even a visual link between them in the disfigurements around their mouths. There is also a reveal at the end where a character’s name is dropped to appeal to fans of the Bond movies that reminded me of the similar one at the end of The Dark Knight Rises. It was quite disconcerting.

Skyfall is a film that celebrates Bond in his 50th year onscreen and, in doing so, tries to have its cake and eat it by maintaining the Bourne-style Bond of Daniel Craig’s debut in Casino Royale but also throwback to the well-known tropes of the Bond canon. After an opening chase scene, there is a classic Bond opening credits sequence of twirling shapes and Craig shooting mirrors with the Walther PPK and naked women, all to the thundering theme song by Adele, with excessive mention of the name of the film in the lyrics. There is a new (and younger) Q in the form of Ben Whishaw, there’s a cameo from the original Aston Martin (and mention of the ejector seat) and there’s more quipping in this film, although not to the level of Roger Moore’s eyebrow acting. It seemed a bit odd after trying to ground Bond in a newer, harsher reality in Casino Royale and the weaker Quantum of Solace (the only positive to come out of Quantum of Solace is the alternative theme song by Joe Cornish), but perhaps it’s because I’m not a huge Bond fan that it seemed noticeable.

Skyfall is a smaller, more intimate Bond film. The notional villain may look unusual and have an island base, but the story is about Silva going after M – Bond does fly to exotic locations to discover who he is, and sleep with women and kill henchmen, but it’s all about protecting M and the relationship she has with the agents she controls. It’s an unusual approach for Bond movies, which are usually about someone doing something horrible that will have a drastic effect on the world, and I have to admit that I wasn’t expecting this storyline from this film when I had seen such good reviews for the film, which has had an effect on my appreciation for the film. There is also some delving into Bond’s past as a child, as the family home is revisited and the past still haunts him.

It is a well-made film: Mendes shows he can do action (and gets Roger Deakins to shoot it beautifully) and he works well with the actors, who all do a good job – Craig inhabits the character in the way he moves but also handles the emotional levels; Judi Dench is excellent as usual, and it’s great to see more of her in this film; Bardem is suitably creepy and odd as the villain; and it’s nice to see the quality of actors in a Bond film with the likes of Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Albert Finney, Rory Kinnear and Helen McCrory. There are good set pieces, plenty of well-choreographed action, and London looks like London in a film, which makes for a nice change.

There are some things that annoyed me to the point of taking me out of the film. There was a small thing (someone getting into a lift and not turning around so Bond could do a cool thing), a slightly bigger thing (Bond doesn’t shoot to wound Silva at a critical juncture for no reason whatsoever, allowing Silva to do something that allows him to escape), a London-centric thing (how can Bond and Silva slide down the escalators on the underground when, in real life, there are metal protrusions all the way along to stop you doing exactly that?) but there was a huge thing: Q is investigating the computer of the implausibly super hacker Silva, which has hacked into MI6 computers and blown up part of the building, and he connects it to MI6’s network in order to hack it – this is incredibly stupid (has he never seen any film ever?) and requires a character who is intelligent to do something absurdly idiotic for the sake of the plot. Sigh.

Overall, I guess I enjoyed Skyfall and would probably recommend it, although I’m not as overwhelmed by it as a lot of professional critics have been, so your mileage may vary.

Rating: DVD

[Explanation of my updated film rating system]

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Notes On A Film: Looper

The great thing about Looper is that it blends smart sci-fi with exciting action without losing anything from either element – that’s a smart trick to pull off. It has a strong and simple hook: in the future, time travel has been invented but immediately banned, used illegally by gangsters to send back people they want disposed in the past. However, it uses it for a film that has heart without being sentimental and characters you care about. Writer/director Rian Johnson has made one of the best time travel action films (a small field).

Joseph Gordon Levitt is Joe Simmons, a ‘looper’ – an assassin who kills the people sent back in time. Things get complicated when his older self, played by Bruce Willis, comes back in time to try to prevent certain aspects of his timeline from coming to fruition, in a violent fashion, and younger Joe has to stop him (called ‘closing the loop’). Levitt has some prosthetic make-up to create a look that resembles a younger Willis, but he also does a great job of playing a younger Willis, with his pauses, his stare and the clipped delivery (another example of Levitt being really good in a really good film – he’s having a great run at the moment). It’s one of the many things that is so enjoyable in this film.

The film is set in the near future (and the ’30 years ahead’ future), something it does with production design that doesn’t overwhelm because there are only a few touches that are needed to distinguish the timelines – there is also a great sequence where we see a quick montage of young Joe to older Joe that is done really well – and it’s not that important to the story. Because the story is the main draw: it deals with retribution and hope and love and family and loss, all while including guns and fists and bloody violence.

In addition to the leads, the film also stars an always excellent Emily Blunt, a suitably gruff Jeff Daniels, and an amazing performance from the young Pierce Gagnon, who plays Blunt’s son, and is a pivotal part of the plot, as well as being believably terrifying. Johnson holds all this together with a firm control of the plot mechanics and character, with a script that eschews the hipster noir dialogue of (the also excellent) Brick and brings together all elements of the time travel aspect and the emotional angle. Looper is a great movie, entertaining, thoughtful, exciting and gripping, and I’m going to enjoy watching it again and again.

Rating: DAVE

[Explanation of my updated film rating system]

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Notes On A Film: Dredd

‘Created by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra’. That’s the first credit that comes up when the film has finished, before the name of the director or the screenwriter. If I wasn’t smiling before, I was certainly smiling when I saw those words. I don’t remember those words appearing in the credits for Judge Dredd, but I try not to remember too much about that film – I hazily recall the great judge costume and the Lawmaster (the judges’ bike), and the fact that they included lots of elements from the comic books, but a film with Rob Schneider as comic relief to a Sylvester Stallone who can’t keep the helmet on for very long made in a time when ‘camp’ was the style used for comic book movies shouldn’t be allowed too much space in my memory palace.

Dredd is the film that Judge Dredd deserves: it’s violent but with a dry black humour, the helmet remains firmly on the head at all times, Mega-City One looks good (using locations in Cape Town and Johannesburg, it’s not as in the future as I would have thought; this film has the idea that the near future wouldn’t change too much from now, even with futuristic touches such as the Lawgiver, the gun of the judges) and Karl Urban superbly channels Clint Eastwood, much as he channelled DeForest Kelley as Dr McCoy in Star Trek, as Judge Dredd in a role where he acts with his chin and his voice (and he doesn’t have a silly ‘character arc’ to worry about). This is a very solid start to a franchise: it introduces the world and the character for future stories.

The film uses a classic set-up: a new recruit is shown the ropes, in this case Dredd evaluates the psychic Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby, not wearing a helmet because it interferes with her abilities), so that the audience can introduced to Mega-City One and the concept of the judge – judge, jury, executioner in one. As mentioned in the film, in a city of 800 million residents sprawling from Boston to Washington, there are 17,000 reported crimes a day, and the judges can respond to only 6% of them. A routine call sees Dredd and Anderson go to Peach Trees, a 200-storey slum run by resident drug lord, Ma-Ma (Lena Headey). When Dredd and Anderson enter a drug den and capture a lieutenant (played by The Wire’s Wood Harris, Avon Barksdale himself, who you think should be running the show), Ma-Ma worries that he will tell all back at the Hall of Justice, so she shuts down the entirety of the block via the nuclear blast shields on all tower blocks and orders the two judges killed.

The film has the unfortunate timing of coming out so soon after The Raid, which uses essentially the same plot of a drug lord ordering the deaths of the cops raiding his tower, thus setting a small shadow over this film. However, Dredd the film soon distinguishes itself with its future setting its central character. Dredd the man doesn’t say much (although he gets some of the best lines) but he is a powerful presence; Urban uses the sneer to perfection – sometimes, the jutting of the chin and the curve of the lower lip in the sneer looks exactly the same as the drawn sneer by Ezquerra or Brian Bolland. There are also some lovely nods towards the comic book: the tickertape of a news programme talks about the Fergee memorial, there is a piece of graffiti in the tower that says ‘CHOPPER’ in the style of the anti-establishment tagger/surfer, and I could swear that the hugely overweight dead man in the foyer was a nod to Two-Ton Tony because of the presence of a small wheeled seat for his enormous stomach.

The other distinguishing factor is the presence of two strong female characters, something that is so rare in action films where women are either the girlfriend to be rescued/threatened or the wife who gets killed in the first reel as motivating factor. Anderson is tough and aware of her unusual nature in an unforgiving world but who steps up and does the job; she’s a good foil and contrast for Dredd. Ma-Ma is also a strong female character, even if she is the villain of the piece – she runs her empire ruthlessly and she is not stupid, and it was refreshing to see this level of equality in action cinema.

The film was shot in 3D, and I saw the film in 3D (something I don’t normally do) because (a) I hoped that a little extra money would help bring about the possibility of sequels and (b) there was only one showing in 2D for the entire day, which is a pretty dire ratio. As with most films, the 3D doesn’t add anything, with the exception of the scenes representing the effects of Slo-Mo, the fictional drug being sold by Ma-Ma, which causes the user to experience time at 1% of normal. The first drug bust is a particular highlight, with Dredd shooting a perp in the face and blood spraying out of the screen; however, a film that is deliberately claustrophobic in its nature by restricting itself to the confines of the narrow hallways in a tower block is never going to be able to justify shooting in 3D.

Despite my reservations about the 3D, I really liked this film: it was a good representation of Judge Dredd and his world on film (regarding the nature of its existence, but without robots and aliens and muties); it’s a violent and blackly funny as the book; and Karl Urban is perfect as Joe Dredd, acting and sounding exactly as I imagine the character. This Dredd film deserves sequels.

Rating: DAVE

[Explanation of my updated film rating system]

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Notes On A Film: The Dark Knight Rises

Several weeks after the film came out – this is absurdly late to post my thoughts on this film. All the discussion has already occurred, although I avoided it for fear of spoilers, and I have nothing new to add. However, The Dark Knight Rises was such a wonderfully enjoyable film, I had to compile a few notes to honour its achievements.

This has been a good year for superhero films: The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises have been really good films that honour their comic book roots and have been enjoyable stories, albeit in different ways. The thing I love about The Dark Knight Rises is that it’s a complete story (although it does allow for the possibilities of future ideas), a great trilogy that connects everything with a sense of purpose and resonance that provides a wonderful sense of narrative satisfaction (I will avoid the word ‘closure’). The three films provide an entire chronicle of a character, told with intelligence and skill, and which leaves the inevitable reboot of Batman as a cinematic franchise as an almost insurmountable achievement because of what Christopher Nolan has done.

The Dark Knight Rises is the next chapter in the story: just as Batman Begins finished with Gordon showing Batman the Joker card which led to The Dark Knight starting with the Joker’s bank heist, the end of The Dark Knight (where Batman takes responsibility for Harvey Dent’s actions) leads straight into The Dark Knight Rises, even if it is eight years later. The Batman hasn’t been seen since; Bruce Wayne (an excellent Christian Bale) is a recluse; Gotham City is a better city due to the Dent Act allowing the imprisonment of 1000 criminals in Blackgate, although Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) feels guilty about how this was achieved by tarnishing the name of the Batman and lionising Harvey Dent. The fragile balance cannot hold for ever …

This is a long film with a lot happening in it, with lots of different characters, several of whom are new to this film. We are introduced to cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), the massively built but quietly and well-spoken Bane (Thomas Hardy in muscular form), Wayne Enterprise board member Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) and her clean energy project, and patrol officer John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who idolises Gordon but who also feels that the Batman was wrongly accused. The third film in a sequence shouldn’t do this (see the missteps of Spider-Man 3 and X-Men: The Last Stand, which all suffered from an overload of characters, among other things) but Nolan is able to handle this and still make a thoughtful analysis of a comic-book character in the middle of a huge action film. And he does it using No Man’s Land and Knightfall, two Batman stories from the 1990s.

This film isn’t perfect – there are several plot holes that are there because they need to be for the plot instead of the impeccable logic of a Nolan film, and I particularly didn’t like the bit about the letter in Gordon’s jacket being found by Bane (oh, and where’s the Joker if all the prisoners have been released?) – but here’s the thing: I don’t care. I was too busy enjoying the film. It was a fitting and operatic conclusion to the story that started in Batman Begins (there are several flashback moments to link to various points in this film) and was a plausible exploration of the character – not in the sense of ‘If Batman were real …’ but in applying some real-world logic to the possibility and not being afraid of the ramifications or the comic-book aspects of the character. For example, saying that being the Batman had ruined his cartilage and the fighting had left him with head trauma acknowledges some reality; however, the film uses Bane (Bane, for goodness sake – the character has always looked silly in the comics, he looked ludicrous in the woeful Batman & Robin, and yet here he is portrayed by a good actor with the face mask and it’s completely plausible) and Catwoman (I was pleasantly surprised by how well Catwoman worked in the film – I had been worried by the costume in the posters, but it all worked on the screen, helped in no small measure by Hathaway’s great performance: you can see why people have been talking about the possibility of a spin-off film) and even the spine breaking. It shouldn’t work but it does.

Nolan has done a great job of imposing his vision on such a big canvas, as he shows Bane taking over Gotham on a grand scale, yet making it about the characters. He’s helped by the actors here: everyone is really good, including Gordon-Levitt, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman, and you can see why he likes to use a troupe of actors (Caine, Hardy, Gordon-Levitt, Cotillard and Cillian Murphy were all in Inception; Bale and Caine were also in The Prestige). It’s also about ideas as well: the current economic state plays a role in the film as the poor of Gotham take back from the rich elite. Nolan has considered the idea of Batman and what it can mean, and he puts layers of meaning into the different aspects of various parts of the film – even the title can refer to several different meanings for different characters. And he does it all with his trademark brio and misdirection, yet he left me smiling like a giddy fool – I was grinning for the last five minutes of the film with the reveals and in-joke and the possibilities and the resolution, which all fitted together and made sense and left me completely satisfied by the film and the trilogy.

Rating: DAVID

[Explanation of my updated film rating system]

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Notes On A Film: John Carter

This is not a review of a film, it is a question about a film:

Why did the media rag on John Carter so much?

Because I watched a perfectly enjoyable fantasy adventure film, and I’m completely bemused by the treatment the film received. Is it the greatest film ever? No. Is it the worst film ever? No. It’s simply a good adaptation of a book, with beautiful scenery, a conflicted central character, a strong female character, ships that sail on light, four-armed green aliens, adventure, sword fighting, bad guys, mystery and excitement. What was everyone’s problem?

I believe it was a case of ‘When legend becomes fact, print the legend’ (from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance). For ‘legend’, read ‘story’, i.e. not the truth, not the facts, but the fabrication. This influenced all reporting about the film – jokes about the film were made instead of talking about it because it fit the legend instead of the facts. The facts: the film is pretty enjoyable. But this doesn’t fit the story. The story is the money. This was a Disney live-action film that cost ~$200 million (plus marketing), and that was all that mattered. Even Mark Kermode, a passionate and intelligent film critic, pressed Andrew Stanton on the money aspect, when it should have been about the film. (But Kermode found the film boring, so it was easier to fit to the legend. But always take Kermode’s views on sci-fi with a pinch of salt – he doesn’t like or care about the original Star Wars trilogy – and the only genre he cares about is horror.)

The quality of the film didn’t matter – the only aspect that mattered was how much it cost. I stopped reading articles about the film when the budget was mentioned. Yes, films are expensive, CGI films more so, and it’s a gamble whenever a film is made. However, it’s only because of journalists talking about it that we know about this stuff in the first place. I don’t care – I want to watch a film, made by professionals, for entertainment. This film succeeded. It wasn’t perfect but it was enjoyable. You could see where lots of other films have appropriated ideas (George Lucas has stolen big chunks of it: an intelligent princess fighting against oppressors, a loyal pet-like alien, arena scenes where heroes fight against large monsters, the desert as a setting for an alien world) but it was enjoyable in its own right, despite the fact that the original stories have inspired so many other films (the first story, published as a book as A Princess Of Mars, was first serialised as Under The Moon Of Mars in a pulp magazine 100 years ago).

I liked the film – it’s an entertaining adventure on an alien planet, with great CGI aliens in the Tharks and their eight-legged steeds, a plot with several layers of villainy, a protagonist who has a character arc from avoiding causes to taking on the responsibility of leadership for the sake of many others, flashes of humour, and a sense of a story instead of a collection of set pieces linked together with talking bits. I’ve never read the books, but the film made me want to read them. So can we get past discussing the economics of a multi-billion-dollar corporation, please? Are we accountants? I don’t want money analysis – let’s talk about the films.

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