“MAN OF STEEL” (2013) Review

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“MAN OF STEEL” (2013) Review

When I had first learned that Warner Brothers Studios and D.C. Comics planned to release another Superman movie six years ago, I did not greet the news with any enthusiasm. In fact, my first reaction was sheer frustration. The last D.C. Comics movie I wanted to see was another Superman movie. 

There were so many reasons for my negative reaction to the news of a new Superman movie. The last one I saw was 2006’s “SUPERMAN RETURNS”, which had been directed by Bryan Singer. There had also been two television series about the Man of Steel in the past twenty (20) years – “LOIS AND CLARK: THE NEW ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN” (1993-1997) and “SMALLVILLE” (2001-2011). The film subsidiary for Marvel Comics have shown a willingness to release movies featuring a vast array of their comic book characters. On the other hand, D.C. Comics seems to be stuck on either Superman or Batman for television and movie material. There have been minor exceptions to the rule – including the Oliver Queen/Green Arrow character that became a regular on “SMALLVILLE”; the 2011 film, “THE GREEN LANTERN”; and the recent WB television series, “ARROW” (the Green Arrow again). Wonder Woman has not been a subject of a movie or television series in her own right since the Lynda Carter series from the 1970s. An unsuccessful television series about the Flash failed to last one season. And Aquaman merely served as a guest character on “SMALLVILLE” for a few episodes.

I had one other reservation regarding the announcement of a new Superman movie. The producers had chosen Zack Synder to direct the film. And I have never been a fan of his past films, at least the ones I have seen – namely the very successful “300”, the critically acclaimed “THE WATCHMEN” and “SUCKER PUNCH”. When I learned he had been selected to direct the new Superman film, “MAN OF STEEL”, my enthusiasm sunk even further. However, I saw the movie’s new trailer last spring and my opposition to the movie began to wane. What can I say? It impressed me. So, I decided to open my mind and give “MAN OF STEEL” a chance.

Thanks to David S. Goyer’s screenplay and the story created by him and Christopher Nolan, “MAN OF STEEL” follows the origins of Superman. Well . . . somewhat. The movie begins on the planet of Krypton, where scientist Jor-El assists his wife in the birth of their newborn son, Kal-El. Due to years of exploiting the planet’s natural resources by the planet’s inhabitants, the planet has an unstable core and faces imminent destruction. Jor-El and Lara plans to send their son to Earth to ensure his survival. They also infuse his cells with a genetic codex of the entire Kryptonian race, something that the planet’s military commander, General Zod desires. Zod and his followers commit a military coup. And the general murders Jor-El, after learning what the latter did with the genetic codex. But Zod and his followers are immediately captured and banished to the Phantom Zone. When Krypton finally self-destructs, the explosion frees Zod and his people; setting them on a search for young Kal-El and the genetic codex at other worlds colonized by Kryptonians.

Kal-El eventually lands on Earth and in the middle of the Kansas countryside. A farmer and his wife – Jonathan and Martha Kent – adopts and raises him, renaming him Clark Kent. However, Clark’s Kryptonian physiology gives him super abilities on Earth, which raises a lot of social problems for him. Jonathan eventually reveals to Clark that he came from another planet and advises not to use his abilities in public. Following Jonathan’s death, a bereaved Clark spends several years roaming the country and working at odd jobs, while he deals with his grief and save people in secret. He eventually infiltrates a scientific discovery of a Kryptonian scout spaceship in the Arctic, which had been discovered by the military. Also there is a reporter from the Daily Planet named Lois Lane. Clark, who is unaware of being followed by Lois, enters the alien ship. It allows him to communicate with the preserved consciousness of Jor-El in the form of a hologram. Jor-El reveals Clark’s origins and the extinction of his race, and tells Clark that he was sent to Earth to bring hope to mankind. Meanwhile, General Zod and his crew pick up a Kryptonian distress signal sent from the ship Clark had discovered on Earth. Zod arrives and demands the humans surrender Kal-El, whom he believes has the codex, or else Earth will be destroyed.

So . . . what did I not like about “MAN OF STEEL”? For one, I disliked the shaky cam photography used by Amir Mokri. I disliked its use by Paul Greengrass in some of his movies. I disliked its use in “QUANTUM OF SOLACE”. And I certainly did not like its use in this film. It made the final confrontations between Superman and the Kryptonians more confusing. Then again, David Brenner’s editing certainly did not help – not in this scene or in the burning oil rig sequence in the movie’s first half hour. I have been a fan of Hans Zimmer for years. But I found his score for this movie rather heavy-handed, especially his use of horns. Speaking of Superman and the Kryptonians’ final confrontations – I thought it was a bit over-the-top in regard to the destruction inflicted upon Metropolis. It reminded me of final action sequence in “IRON MAN 3”, which I also did not care for.

Fortunately, there was a great deal more about “MAN OF STEEL” that I liked. And I find this amazing, considering my past opinion of director Zack Synder. David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan wrote a first-rate origin story for Superman. I noticed that they utilized the same or a similar story structure that they had used in the Dark Knight Trilogy. Instead of allowing Superman to face his most famous adversary in the first film, Goyer and Nolan utilized Superman’s Kryptonian origins to play a major role in the film’s story. Instead of Lex Luthor, Superman’s main nemesis in “MAN OF STEEL” proved to be General Zod. Some fans of the franchise were annoyed by this. I was not. Goyer and Nolan also did a first-rate job in exploring Clark Kent/Superman’s emotional growth, the loneliness he had endured during his childhood in flashbacks and those years he wandered before discovering the Kryptonian ship in the Artic, and his wariness toward the human race. I especially do not recall any previous Superman story or television series exploring the latter. How very original of Goyer, Nolan and director Zack Snyder. Some fans have complained about the different twists that Goyer, Nolan and Synder made to the Superman mythos – especially in his relationship with reporter Lois Lane. I do not understand the complaints, considering the number of twists and changes that have been made to the Superman mythos in movies and especially television during the past twenty years. And honestly? The twist to Clark/Superman’s relationship with Lois made the story fresher.

Although I did not particularly care for the over-the-top destruction featured in “MAN OF STEEL”, I must admit that the special effects featured in that last scene impressed me very much. I was also impressed by their work in the sequence that featured Superman’s fight against Faora-Ul and the other Kryptonian in Smallville. But the one sequence that featured some great special effects happened to be the one on Krypton. I found the effects very beautiful. In fact, there were other aspects of that sequence that really impressed me – namely Alex McDowell’s production designs, Anne Kuljian’s set decorations, Kim Sinclair and Chris Farmer’s art direction and especially James Acheson and Michael Wilkinson’s costume designs. Some have complained by the lack of red shorts for Superman’s costume. But I did not miss them. More importantly, I liked how Sinclair and Farmer linked Superman’s costume with those worn by many of the Kryptonians.

When I first heard that Henry Cavill had been hired to portray Clark Kent/Superman, I must admit that I was somewhat taken aback. Mind you, the idea of a British actor portraying an American comic book character was nothing new, thanks to Christian Bale’s portrayal of Bruce Wayne/Batman and the Anglo-American Andrew Garfield’s recent portrayal of Spider-Man. I only felt uncertain if Cavill could portray a Midwesterner with the proper accent. Okay, I am not an expert in Midwestern accents. But Cavill handled the American very well. More importantly, he gave a superb performance as the quiet, yet emotional Clark Kent who had spent a good number of years wallowing in loneliness. I was surprised that Amy Adams had signed on to portray Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane. I did not expect her to appear in a comic book hero movie. But I must admit that I really enjoyed her performance, especially since her Lois proved to be a lot less blind about Superman’s secret identity and more willing to track down the truth. Michael Shannon effectively utilized that same intensity that provided for his Nelson Van Alden role in HBO’s “BOARDWALK EMPIRE” in his performance as the single-minded Kryptonian General Zod.

Antje Traue proved to be even more scary than Shannon as Zod’s second-in-command, the less verbal Faora-Ul. Laurence Fishburne gave an intense performance as Perry White, the no-nonsense editor of the Daily Planet. Russell Crowe’s Jor-El not only proved to be charismatic, but something of a bad ass. Ayelet Zurer provided a great deal of pathos and emotion in her performance as Superman’s mother, Lara Lor-Van. Diane Lane proved to be the movie’s emotional rock in her down-to-earth performance as Martha Kent, Superman’s adopted mother. And Kevin Costner’s portrayal of Jonathan Kent proved to be just as charismatic as Crowe’s Jor-El and as emotional as Zurer’s Lara. The movie also featured some solid performances from the likes of Richard Schiff, Michael Kelly and Christopher Meloni. I was really impressed with Harry Lennix’s performance as the commanding, yet paranoid General Swanwick.

“MAN OF STEEL” had a few problems. But I believe that the movie possessed a great deal more virtues, including a first-rate story created by David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan and a superb cast led by a talented Henry Cavill as Clark Kent/Superman. But I was very surprised by Zack Synder’s direction, especially since he managed to curtail some of his less-than-pleasant excesses in films previous to this one, and at the same time, effectively helm a first-rate movie. For the first time, I found myself being more than pleased by a movie directed by Synder.

 

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“HIDDEN FIGURES” (2016) Review

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“HIDDEN FIGURES” (2016) Review

In all my years of reading about the men and women who worked at NASA, whether in the air or on the ground, I have only come across two people who people of color. And both were astronauts. Not once did those articles ever reveal the numerous African-Americans who worked at NASA – including those women who worked as mathematicians (Human Computers) for NASA during the Space Race between the 1950s and 1970s. 

Imagine my surprise when I learned that 20th Century Fox Studios planned to distribute a movie based upon the 2016 non-fiction book, “Hidden Figures”. Written by Margot Lee Shetterly, the book focused on three NASA mathematicians – Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson. Even before the movie was finally released, a NBC series called “TIMELESS” aired an episode set during the Apollo 11 mission that featured one of the movie’s main characters – Katherine Johnson. In the midst of all of this, I found myself anticipating the movie.

As I had stated earlier, “HIDDEN FIGURES” began in early 1961 in which mathematicians Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughn, along with aspiring engineer Mary Jackson; are working at NASA’s West Area Computers division of Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia with minimum satisfaction. Dorothy, who works as an unofficial supervisor of the black women who served as Human Computers, requests to be officially promoted to supervisor. Her request is rejected by her supervisor, Vivian Mitchell. Mary identifies a flaw in the experimental space capsule’s heat shields. Space engineer Karl Zielinski encourages her to aggressively pursue a degree in engineering for a more substantial position at NASA. In order to attain a graduate degree in engineering, Mary would have to take the required courses in math and physics from a University of Virginia night program being taught at the all-white Hampton High School. After the Soviet Union manages to send a successful Russian satellite launch, pressure to send American astronauts into space increases. Vivian Mitchell assigns Katherine to assist Director Al Harrison’s Space Task Group, due to her skills in analytic geometry. Katherine becomes the first African-American woman to work with the team and in the building. But her new colleagues are initially dismissive of her presence on the team, especially Paul Stafford, the Group’s head engineer. The movie focuses on the three women’s efforts to overcome bigoted attitudes and institutional racism to achieve their goals at NASA.

“HIDDEN FIGURES”, like any other historical drama I have ever seen or read, is mixture of fact and fiction. Some of the movie’s characters are fictional. And Allison Schroeder and director Theodore Melfi may have mixed up the dates on some of the film’s events. But as far as I am concerned, this did not harm the movie. More importantly, Schroeder and Melfi created a screenplay that maintained my interest in a way that some films with a similar topic have failed to do. In other words, “HIDDEN FIGURES” proved to be a subtle, yet captivating movie.

The movie’s subtle tone manifested in the racism encountered by the three women. Katherine Johnson dealt with the Space Task Group’s quiet refusal to take her seriously via minor pranks and dismissive attitudes. She also has to deal with Paul Stafford’s constant stream of complaints, skeptical comments and attempts to take credit for her work. Worst of all, Katherine is forced to walk (or run) several miles back to her old building in order to use the restroom, due to the Space Task Group’s restrooms being off-limits to non-whites. Dorothy Vaughn is determined to become the official supervisor for the segregated West Area human computers. But due to her race, her supervisor – Vivian Mitchell – refuses to consider giving Dorothy a genuine promotion. The most subtle example of racism found in the movie manifested in Mary Jackson’s desire to return to school and attain a graduate degree in engineering. The racism she faced seemed to be internal. Despite urgings from both her husband and Mr. Zielinski, Mary seemed reluctant to request permission from the Virginia courts to attend a segregated school in order to obtain a graduate Engineering degree. Subconsciously, she seemed to believe that her efforts would be wasted.

The fascinating thing about the racism that the three women faced is that violence of any kind was not involved. The racism that they faced was subtle, insidious and nearly soul-crushing. But no violence was involved. The closest they came to encountering violence occurred when a law officer stopped to question them, while Dorothy’s car was stranded at the side of the road in the movie’s opening scene. The cop eventually escorted them to the Langley Research Center after learning they worked for NASA. Yet, I could not help but feel that the entire scene seemed to crackle with both humor, intimidation and a little terror, thanks to Theodore Melfi’s direction.

Despite my admiration of Melfi’s direction of the above-mentioned scene, I have to admit that I would not regard it as one of the best things about “HIDDEN FIGURES”. I am not stating that I found his direction lousy or mediocre. If I must be honest, I thought it was pretty solid, aside from that opening scene, which I found exceptional. “HIDDEN FIGURES” was his third feature-length film as a director . . . and it showed. I suspect that the movie benefited more from its subject matter, screenplay and its cast.

I certainly had no problems with the movie’s production values. Despite the movie being set in Northern Virginia, it was shot in Georgia. And Mandy Walker’s sharp and colorful photography certainly took advantage of the location. And thanks to Wynn Thomas’ production designs, Missy Parker’s set decorations, and Jeremy Woolsey’s art direction, I felt as if I had been transported back to Hampton, Virginia, circa 1961. I can also say the same about Renee Ehrlich Kalfus’ costumes, which I felt had accurately reflected the characters’ personalities and social class, as shown in the images below:

Only one cast member from “HIDDEN FIGURES” had received any acting nominations. Octavia Spencer received both an Academy Award nomination and Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Personally, she deserved it. I thought Spencer gave a very subtle, yet commanding performance as the group’s aspiring supervisor, Dorothy Vaughn. I was also impressed by Janelle Monáe, who not only gave a very entertaining performance as the extroverted and witty Mary Jackson, but also did an impressive job in conveying her character’s self-doubts about pursuing an Engineering graduate’s degree. I am surprised that Taraji P. Henson did not received any major acting nominations for her performance as NASA mathematician Katherine Goble (later Johnson). Personally, I find that baffling. I was very impressed by her quiet and subtle performance as the widowed mathematician, who not only struggled to endure the dismissive attitude of her Space Group Task Force colleagues, but also found love again after spending a few years as a widow. Personally, I thought Henson’s performance deserved at least an award nomination or two.

“HIDDEN FIGURES” also featured top notch performances from the supporting cast. Kevin Costner gave a very colorful performances as the Space Group Task Force director Al Harrison. The movie’s other colorful performance came from Glen Powell, who portrayed astronaut and future U.S. senator John Glennn. Jim Parsons was just as subtle as Henson in his portrayal of the racist, yet insecure head engineer Paul Stafford. Mahershala Ali gave a nice and charming performance as Katherine’s second husband, Jim Johnson. But his performance did not strike as particularly memorable. Aldis Hodge, on the other hand, gave an intense and interesting performance as Mary’s politically-inclined husband, Levi Jackson; who urges his wife to overcome her reluctance to pursue a graduate degree in Engineering. This movie seemed to be filled with subtle performance for Kirsten Dunst also gave one as the slightly racist Vivian Mitchell, supervisor of all the Human Computers.

The movie turned out to be quite a surprise for me. Watching the trailer, I came away with the impression that it would be one of those nice, but mediocre live-action Disney films. And to be honest, there were moments when Theodore Melfi’s direction gave that impression. He does not strike me as a particularly memorable director. But that opening sequence featuring the three protagonists and a cop seemed to hint Melfi’s potential to become a first-rate director. In the end, the movie’s superb Oscar-nominated screenplay and the excellent performances of a cast led by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe made “HIDDEN FIGURES” one of my favorite movies of 2016.

 

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“THIRTEEN DAYS” (2000) Review

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“THIRTEEN DAYS” (2000) Review

In 1991, Kevin Costner starred in “J.F.K.”, Oliver Stone’s Oscar nominated film that explored the death of U.S. President John F. Kennedy. Nine years later, Kevin Costner returned to the land of this country’s own “Camelot”, in this docudrama about the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 from the viewpoint of President Kennedy and the men who served his Administration. 

“THIRTEEN DAYS” got its title from Robert F. Kennedy’s 1969 posthumous memoirs about the incident. Yet, David Self’s screenplay is actually based upon Philip D. Zelikow’s 1997 book, “The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis”“THIRTEEN DAYS” began in early October 1962, when the Kennedy Administration receive U-2 surveillance photos revealing nuclear missiles in Cuba that were placed by the Soviet Union. Because these missiles have the capability to wipe out most of the Eastern and Southern United States if operational, President John F. Kennedy and his advisers are forced to find a way to prevent their operational status. Also, Kennedy’s authority is challenged by top civilian and military advisers like Chief of Staff U.S. Air Force General Curtis LeMay and former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, who wanted the President to display more obvious signs of military strength in order to scare the Soviets in to removing the missiles. Most of the interactions between Kennedy and his men are witnessed by Kenneth O’Donnell, a presidential adviser and close school friend of Attorney General Robert Kennedy.

There have been complaints that “THIRTEEN DAYS” is not a completely accurate portrayal of the Cuban Missile Crisis. And that the Kenny O”Donnell character, portrayed by star Kevin Costner, was unnecessarily prominent in this film. I do not know if the last complaint is relevant. After all, O’Donnell was one of Kennedy’s advisers during the crisis. But since Costner was the star of the movie and one of the producers, perhaps there is some minor cause for complaint. As for any historical inaccuracy . . . this is a movie adaptation of history. People should realize that complete historical accuracy is extremely rare in fictional adaptations – not only in Hollywood movies and television, but also in productions outside of the country, novels, plays and even paintings.

Were there any aspects of “THIRTEEN DAYS” that I found . . . uh, annoying or off putting? Well, Kevin Costner’s attempt at a Boston accent was pretty terrible. And if I must be frank, there was nothing exceptional about Roger Donaldson’s direction. I am not stating that he did a poor job directing the film. On the contrary, he did a solid job. But there were moments when I felt I was watching a TV movie-of-the-week, instead of a major motion picture – especially in one of the final shots that revealed the President’s advisers discussing policy in Vietnam, while Kennedy prepared to compose a letter to the relatives of a downed U-2 pilot.

Other than Costner’s Boston accent and Donaldson’s less than spectacular direction, I have no real complaints about the movie. In fact, I enjoyed it very much when I first saw it, twelve years ago. And I still enjoyed it very much when I recently viewed my DVD copy of it. “THIRTEEN DAYS” is a solid, yet tense and fascinating look into the Missile Crisis from the viewpoints of President Kennedy and his advisers. Before I first saw this film, I had no idea that Kennedy faced so much trouble from the military elite and the more conservative advisers of his administration. I was especially surprised by the latter, considering that the President himself was not only a borderline conservative, but also harbored hawkish views against Communism.

Although I would never view Donaldson as one of the finest directors around, I must admit that I was more than impressed by his ability to energized a story that could have easily been bogged down by a series of scenes featuring nothing but discussions and meetings. Instead, both Donaldson and Self energized “THIRTEEN DAYS” with a good number of scenes that featured tension between characters, emotional confrontations and two action sequences that featured military flights over Cuba. Among my favorite scenes are Kennedy’s confrontation with Curtis Le May, his angry outburst over Le May’s decision to engage in nuclear testing as a scare tactic against the Soviets; the flight of two U.S. Navy pilots over Cuban airspace; Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s confrontation with U.S. Navy Admiral George Anderson; and especially U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson’s confrontation with the Soviet U.N. Ambassador Valerian Zorin.

However, Donaldson’s direction and Self’s script were not the only aspects of “THIRTEEN DAYS” that prevented the movie from becoming a dull history lesson. The cast, led by Kevin Costner, Bruce Greenwood and Steven Culp, provided some superb performances that helped keep the story alive. I am not going to deny that I found Costner’s Boston accent cringe worthy. One would have to be deaf not to notice. But a bad accent does not mean a bad performance. And Costner proved to be a very lively and intense Kenny O’Donnell, whose close relationship and loyalty to the Kennedys allowed him to be brutally frank to them, when others could not get away with such frankness. Steven Culp was equally intense as Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who seemed to inject energy into every scene in which he appeared. But the one performance that really impressed me came from Bruce Greenwood’s portrayal of the 35th President of the United States. Instead of portraying Kennedy as some one-note political icon or womanizing bad boy, Greenwood portrayed Kennedy as a intelligent, multi-faceted politician struggling to prevent the outbreak of a third world war, while keeping his high-ranking military officers in check. Personally, I feel that Greenwood may have given the best portrayal of Kennedy I have yet to see on either the movie or television screen. The movie also featured some first-rate and memorable supporting performances from the likes of Dylan Baker (as Robert McNamara), Michael Fairman (as Adlai Stevenson), Lucinda Jenney (as Helen O’Donnell), Kevin Conway (as Curtis LeMay), Madison Mason (as Admiral Anderson), Len Cariou (as Dean Acheson), Bill Smitrovich (as General Maxwell Taylor), and especially Karen Ludwig and Christopher Lawson as the sharp-tongued White House operator Margaret and the sardonic U.S. Navy pilot Commander William Ecker.

I want to say something about the film’s production designs and setting. If there is one aspect of “THIRTEEN DAYS” that I truly appreciated how J. Dennis Washington’s production designs re-created the year 1962. And he did so without any over-the-top attempt at early 1960s style. Unlike some productions set during this period, “THIRTEEN DAYS” did not scream “THIS IS THE SIXTIES!”. Washington’s production designs, along with Denise Pizzini’s set decorations and Isis Mussenden’s costume designs presented the early 1960s with an elegance and accuracy I found very satisfying. Their work was ably assisted by Andrzej Bartkowiak’s photography. Bartkowiak’s work also supported Conrad Buff IV’s excellent editing, which prevented the film from becoming a dull period piece.

I do not know what else I could say about “THIRTEEN DAYS”. I do not claim that it is a perfect film. I found Roger Donaldson’s direction excellent, but not particularly dazzling or outstanding. And yes, Kevin Costner’s otherwise first-rate performance was marred by a bad Boston accent. But he, along with an excellent Steven Culp, a superb Bruce Greenwood, a solid cast and a satisfying script by David Self made “THIRTEEN DAYS” an interesting and well made account of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.