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Posts Tagged ‘Amy Adams’

One of the nice things about our semi-regular trips to the cinema is the opportunity for some proper, high-quality discussion and debate afterwards. Last week, for example, Olinka and I had an interesting talk about the concept of normality and what it really means – should it carry a positive or negative connotation? And then today we emerged from the theatre, this time accompanied by our Contemporary Conflict Consultant (she did an MA in modern geo-politics, or something – we just call her Con-Con).

‘So,’ I said, ‘If you had to choose between being ruled by an idiot or a monster, which would it be?’

‘Neither.’

‘You have to choose!’

‘But they’re both bad!’ said Olinka.

‘Yes, but which is worse?’

‘They’re both worse than each other,’ said Con-Con, who may have an MA but probably wouldn’t last long in a philosophy seminar.

In the end they sort of refused to answer the question, which I thought was telling. The movie to provoke this unusually intense wrangling was Adam McKay’s Vice. Ten or fifteen years ago McKay was well-established as a director of smart, silly comedy films, but since then he has reinvented himself as one of the most ferociously political directors working in the Hollywood mainstream – almost like a non-documentarian analogue to Michael Moore – and has done so to some acclaim. Vice continues this, and is probably his most partisan piece of work to date.

Vice tells the story of the career of Dick Cheney, whom you may or may not recall was the Vice-President of the United States under George W Bush. You may very well not recall; the film suggests this may be part of Cheney’s dark genius. Cheney is played by Christian Bale at his most chameleonic – for most of the film he virtually disappears under layers of prosthetic make-up. We first meet the future Veep in the early sixties as a hard-drinking scumbag, kicked out of college for his bad behaviour. His intimidating wife Lynne (Amy Adams) decrees that Cheney shape up or she will leave him.

From this point on the film rattles through the early part of his political career – an internship in Washington, where he forges a long-lasting alliance with his mentor-cum-ally Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), then a stint as White House chief-of-staff, election as a Congressman, then Secretary of Defence under the first President Bush. A presidential run is contemplated, but Cheney decides against it. However, could a second act in his career be lurking on the horizon…?

Well, of course it is, and – the film posits – Cheney eventually becomes the real power behind the throne as Vice-President to George W Bush (Sam Rockwell), quietly gaining control of key areas such as energy, defence, and foreign policy. Following the September 11th attacks, Cheney and his cohorts see the opportunity to launch the invasion of Iraq they have already been preparing for. Various things follow which I hope you are already familiar with: Guantanamo Bay, extraordinary rendition, the destabilisation of the Middle East, the rise of ISIS, and much more. Did I mention that this is at least partly intended as a comedy film?

Doing a bio-pic of someone who is still alive is not entirely unheard of, especially when the person is in the later stages of their life and most likely not going to make any more notable contributions to posterity. What makes Vice somewhat noteworthy is that most biographical films tend to be upbeat, or at least fairly non-judgmental, certainly when their subject is still alive. This film is different. Dick Cheney is presented as, not to put too fine a point on it, a monster, an utterly ruthless sociopath fixated on the acquisition and use of power for its own sake. (Bale notoriously thanked ‘Satan’ for inspiration when he won an award for this role recently.) One key moment in his political development comes when a perplexed Cheney asks Rumsfeld what it is they actually believe in as politicians. Rumsfeld walks off practically screaming with laughter. Cheney, the film suggests, achieves this and facilitates many atrocities through the deployment of tortuous circular logic (America has declared it does use torture; therefore the use of stress positions and waterboarding cannot, by definition, be considered torture) and an Orwellian misuse of language (‘enemy combatant’ rather than ‘prisoner of war’; ‘climate change’, not ‘global warming’). He also makes full use of people’s tendency to ignore big, complex, abstract problems and fixate on whatever’s in front of them, like a reality TV show.

As with The Big Short, McKay’s last film, there is some quite challenging material here, the sort of thing that might make audiences switch off, and so McKay works intensely to keep the film surprising and blackly entertaining. Bale’s performance as Cheney is a masterclass in understated, underplayed menace, but Steve Carell and Sam Rockwell are both essentially off the leash as Rumsfeld and Bush – Rumsfeld emerges as a kind of demented rodent, while the film sticks with the notion that Bush was a clueless figurehead for an administration basically run by Cheney: Rockwell plays him as a hapless, baffled lightweight. Some big performances here, and it does make me wonder about (and, to be honest, eagerly anticipate) the inevitable movie concerning the Trump administration we’re bound to get, probably sooner rather than later. How can any movie do that particular circus justice? One can only hope The Jim Henson Company have kept their diaries free.

Elsewhere the film cheerfully toys with the standard forms of conventional cinema in a way which seemed to me to be very clearly indebted to Monty Python in places – there’s a fake ending at one point, complete with its own credits. You do occasionally get a sense of the film stretching a bit too far for its effects, though – Jesse Plemons’ narrator admits that it’s impossible to know what was going through the Cheneys’ minds as they contemplated Dick becoming the VP, so the film opts to fill the gap by inserting a cod-Shakespearean sketch with the couple considering their options a la Macbeth and his wife.

‘This probably won’t play well with the Republican base’, you may be thinking, and the film indeed seems to anticipate this, including another sketch-like moment where one character complains he’s appearing in a film with a liberal bias and then gets into a fight with someone with an old-fashioned attachment to facts (meanwhile two onlookers ignore the developing brawl as they discuss the latest cool movie trailer to drop). But this seems more like a joke than a serious attempt at redress. One of the film’s most brilliant strokes is to suggest that, despite everything else he’s responsible for, Dick Cheney did have at least one mitigating quality, one moral principle – only to reveal that, in the end, he knowingly abandoned even this. Even so, the film does allow Cheney the last word – Bale-as-Cheney addresses the camera and justifies his actions in a manner that is not only difficult to easily dismiss, but also serves as a reminder that we are all to some extent complicit in the crimes committed in our names.

The disputed election in 2000 and the invasion of Iraq a few years later already feel like something out of the history books, but Vice is also careful to establish the part that Cheney and his generation played in creating the conditions which enabled the current slow-motion disaster in American politics. Trump and Pence appear in archive footage; they actually find footage of Ronald Reagan saying ‘Make America great again’; Cheney’s role in changing the law to allow partisan news services such as Fox News to come into existence is touched upon. There is much that is still timely in this film, even if it feels more like a howl of disbelieving anger than any kind of suggestion as to how to make things better.

This is a ferocious film, very funny, and full of ideas and energy with some terrifically entertaining performances. It’s also quite frightening and more than a bit dispiriting, which makes it an odd package, to say the least. I’m not sure it’s likely to change many minds, but I think it will be an educational experience for many people, and a roller-coaster trip through recent political history. One of the outstanding movies of the year so far.

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I suspect that if you chose the right ten people and asked each of them to name a great SF film, then you might not just end up with a list of ten different films, but ten films so wildly different they might not even seem to belong to the same genre, let alone all be exemplars of it. I’m not suggesting that any or all of these people would actually be the kind of morons who think Transformers actually qualifies as an SF film, but simply that you can honestly believe that Primer is the kind of film that epitomises great science fiction, and not be wrong, while someone else can opt for a film like – I don’t know – Gamera: Advent of Legion, and equally be taking a completely defensible stand.

I offer this to you not as some great new insight – the final paper edition of the Encyclopedia of SF had an entry on ‘Definition of Science Fiction (Difficulty of)’ – but because you should, of course, be wary when someone informs you that a new movie is ‘the best SF movie in years’ or something of that ilk. This sort of cachet is being widely applied to Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, and I would have to say that it is by no means entirely unjustified. But, you know.

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Amy Adams plays Louise Sands, a top linguist and translator whose life, along with that of everyone else in the world, is thrown into turmoil by the appearance in the skies of the planet of twelve vast alien objects, their origins and intentions unknown. The alien presence remains inert and enigmatic, and Louise’s special skill set and a pre-existing connection with the US Department of Defence results in her being recruited to a special project: she is flown to the site in Montana where one of the alien craft has (nearly) touched down, and put in charge of a team attempting to either decipher the aliens’ own baffling language or teach them to communicate in English. Working a parallel project is top physics boffin Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) – yes, it’s a miracle, Jeremy Renner is in a film with a military element and he’s not playing a special forces soldier – and the two forge a close working relationship. But their de facto boss (Forest Whitaker) is desperate for results – other world powers are working equally hard to make contact with the aliens in their own territory, and there will be obvious political and military advantages to the first nation that succeeds…

Arrival kicks off by playing with one of SF’s killer ideas: they arrive. It’s a mesmerising notion, not least because, well, you never know. They may really be coming. They may be here tomorrow, or next week, or… and if they do, well, no-one really knows what will happen next. You could probably do a whole movie just on the ramifications and details of how that event plays out.

However, the movie doesn’t just settle for that, but goes on to tackle a whole range of other concepts, most of which are slightly stronger meat than you generally find in what is laughingly referred to as a Hollywood SF film: the neuro-linguistic hypothesis, the nature of our perception of time, free-will and determinism, and the nature of xeno-linguistics. I mean, I can ask the way to the bathroom in Klingon, but even so, I still thought this film wasn’t afraid to be a bit thinky.

Lest all this should make you blanch, I would advise you not to worry. At least, not much. All of the above is folded into a properly impressive and actually slightly spooky tale of vast, incomprehensible, quasi-Lovecraftian extraterrestrials, that often feels – and I don’t wish to appear to be slighting Villeneuve – very much of a piece with Christopher Nolan’s excursions into the SF field (and regular readers will know that is meant as the highest of compliments).

Of course, part and parcel of this is the way that the film gets rather tricksy and clever with the narrative structure of the story, because not all that’s going on is quite as it first appears. The movie achieves one magnificent, quintessentially science-fictional coup about two thirds of the way through, when the true nature of what’s been going on suddenly becomes clear, and the sense of conceptual breakthrough is dizzying. (However, this is very difficult to talk about in detail without ruining the plot, so I shall move on.)

In short, if you’re starting to get the impression that this is a film with a notable lack of chase sequences and upbeat music cues on the soundtrack, you’re absolutely right: while it certainly seems to be set in the same sort of narrative space as old-school charmers like Close Encounters (lots of people in rubber suits and numerous scenes of the army getting grumpy), it probably goes even further in terms of sheer thoughtfulness and… well, maturity’s not quite the right word, but I’m struggling to find the right one that doesn’t have an off-putting connotation to it. Arrival is a film with a lot of cello music and many moments of the lead character silently contemplating both the value of their life and the nature of existence, which I know is not some people’s idea of a relaxing night’s entertainment.

Nevertheless, it stays very watchable throughout, mainly due to confident, unflappable direction – Villeneuve doesn’t allow himself to be rushed into wheeling on his aliens, and the slow gravity-warping journey into the heart of their craft acquires enormous tension as a result – and very intelligent performances from Adams, Renner, and Whitaker, who carry most of the movie between them. Like nearly all of the film, they are of the highest quality without seeming overly flashy or pleased with themselves – this is a really classy film, the kind of thing that might well win Oscars if it wasn’t saddled with the usually-insuperable problem that it’s obviously science fiction. (The Academy hates science fiction.)

Of course, one way in which Arrival is very much of a piece with numerous pieces of great SF from the past is that it is not exactly a barrel of laughs. It’s not totally po-faced or lacking in warmth, but I thought that the main thrust of the story and particularly the conclusion was not an optimistic statement about the ineffable pleasures of living in the moment, but carried a rather bleaker message about what it means to be a conscious living entity. Yeah, like I said: not exactly your classic popcorn movie, this one.

Still, I’m on record as bewailing the near-disappearance of the classic intelligent SF movie, and so of course I’m not going to complain when something like Arrival comes along. Let’s not worry about its place in history just yet, and settle for saying that this is an extremely thoughtful and inventive SF movie made for grown-ups who aren’t afraid to use their brains, but at the same time aren’t totally out of touch with their emotions. If that sounds like your sort of thing, this film is pretty much an unmissable treat.

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‘Batman Vs Superman is where you go when you’ve exhausted all possibilities. It’s somewhat of an admission that this franchise is on its last gasp.

In case you’re not familiar with the source or context of that quote, it’s from noted comic-book movie writer and director David Goyer, explaining in 2005 why it was decided not to go with Wolfgang Petersen’s proposed film of that title. Eleven years is a geological age in Hollywood, of course, which is why Goyer now has his name on the script of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, the crucial second instalment in DC’s attempt to establish a franchise featuring its own roster of superheroes. Nevertheless, does something about this strike you as a little off? It may well.

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BvS (I can’t be bothered to write the full title out every time) is the follow-up to Man of Steel, and as before is directed by Zach Snyder. I’m going to cut to the chase here: as a movie it seems to be the result of two distinct creative agendas, neither of them exactly surprising. Firstly, DC have been casting envious eyes upon the massive critical and (particularly) popular success of the Marvel Studios movies over the last nearly-ten years, and want a slice of the same cake. So BvS has the job of singlehandedly jump-starting a similar enterprise, introducing a slew of new characters and concepts (something which, you may recall, Marvel split across three or four movies).

Secondly, it – like every other Batman film of the past 30 years – is utterly preoccupied with Frank Miller’s graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, which features a grim, brooding, slightly unhinged Batman in an everyday story of how to make slightly fascist social views acceptable for a young and liberal audience. The climax of Miller’s book is a spectacular showdown between Batman and Superman (here presented as a tool of the corrupt establishment).

Whatever your opinion of Frank Miller’s politics, he is undeniably a great storyteller when he’s on form, which is not something I’m sure anyone has ever said about Zach Snyder. Hmm. Well, the movie opens with a brief, portentous recap of the Kryptonian attack on Metropolis at the end of Man of Steel, in which we get to see Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) trying to save some of the bystanders and generally being appalled by the chaos and destruction the aliens have caused. This makes him miserable for the rest of the movie, as if Batman isn’t usually miserable enough.

Flash forward a couple of years and we learn that being miserable has made Batman even more brutal and savage in his war on crime than usual, to the point where Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) is quite outraged by what he sees as unjustifiable terror tactics and unchecked vigilanteism. This at least takes Kent/Superman’s mind off the fact that his various super-deeds have proved rather controversial, because good deeds can sometimes have bad consequences (yup, this movie is that morally profound). This makes Superman miserable for the rest of the movie, too.

Also fairly miserable is brilliant entrepreneur/scientist Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), who considers the presence of Superman on Earth to be an affront to human supremacy. To this end he has laid his hands on some interesting green rocks extracted from one of the destroyed Kryptonian ships, in the belief they may have interesting effects on Superman.

(Also hanging around the plot is Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), who, to her enormous credit, isn’t miserable at all and actually seems to be enjoying herself.)

Or, to put it another way, the standard structure for this kind of story goes as follows: two superheroes meet for the first time. There is, inevitably, some sort of misunderstanding, and the two of them take each other on. However, they soon realise they’re on the same side and join forces to deal with the genuine, much more significant threat.

That’s a classic structure (and one which I adhere to myself when running superhero RPGs, for instance) – it’s done properly in the first Avengers movie, for example. However, it kind of presupposes the hero-on-hero action will be happening in the second act, which is at odds with the desire to do Dark Knight Returns on the big screen – there, the hero-on-hero stuff is the climax. The film has to compromise, which means it doesn’t really do either story justice.

And, architecturally, the mashing of structures unbalances the whole movie. This is a long film (and it certainly feels like it), and with the big battles all held back for the third act, it struggles to find things to do for much of its running time. In the end it settles for lots of brooding, apocalyptic dream sequences, heavy-going quasi-theological discussions, laborious setting-up of planned future movies, and characters glaring miserably at each other, prior to a final half-hour or so made up almost entirely of things going boom.

The real victim of the mangled plotting is Lex Luthor, who seems to have half-a-dozen schemes going on simultaneously, not all of which make complete (or even partial) sense. Or, to put it another way, his plan is to frame Superman as being responsible for various terrorist atrocities, get his hands on some Kryptonite to kill him with, blackmail him into killing Batman to further besmirch his good name, and then breed a giant half-Kryptonian monster to batter him to death. Now that’s what I call multi-tasking. To put it yet another way, Luthor is basically just a plot device rather than an actual character, which is why a talented actor like Jesse Eisenberg has to resort to an array of tics and quirky mannerisms just to give him any kind of identity. As it is, the character still doesn’t convince.

As you may have gathered, once it’s (reluctantly) finished trying to be The Dark Knight Returns, the movie has a go at being (spoiler alert) The Death of Superman, complete with a CGI version of Doomsday. Even this is not that interesting to watch, due to Snyder’s preferred aesthetic of everything that’s not actually exploding being grim and gloomy – although, to be fair, once the three heroes team up to fight the monster it actually starts to feel more like an actual superhero film (plus the only two proper jokes in the film are both near the end).

Actually, I would say that the glaring problem with BvS is not that the structure of the film is wonky – other blockbusters have got away with as much – but that the tone of the thing is so relentlessly depressing. Oh, God, it’s so horrible that Superman is flying around saving people and averting disasters! It’s so awful that Batman is fighting crime in Gotham City! The whole thing is literally this ponderously gloomy – there’s none of the joy or colour or imagination of even a so-so superhero comic. Are DC doing this just to be different from the slightly self-mocking and frequently goofy Marvel movies? If so, then distinctiveness arguably comes at too heavy a price.

You could also argue that a mainstream audience most likely hasn’t read The Dark Knight Returns and isn’t going to get all the references to it here (there are, of course, many), and isn’t going to recognise this conflicted, adversarial take on these two iconic characters. (I have to say the film kind of misses the point of DKR, too: you’re firmly on Batman’s side in the Miller book – his Superman is a compromised, arrogant figure – whereas here the Kryptonian is essentially an innocent party being roughed up by a headcase.) Certainly, the big thing – the colossal thing – BvS has going for it is that it puts Superman and Batman on the big screen together for the first time. But for some reason Zach Snyder seems to think he can only do this by making them essentially unrecognisable – Superman is a guilt-racked, despairing victim, Batman is a vicious, paranoid loon.

A friend of mine has written quite an impassioned piece in defence of BvS, saying he found it quite heartwarming to see the two characters come together and interact with each other, and that you shouldn’t criticise it just because it deviates from the minutiae of comics lore. I understand entirely where he’s coming from on the first point, but the movie doesn’t just get the little details of comics mythology wrong, it completely fails to grasp what makes these two characters so iconic and beloved.

(The only thing about the movie which is even vaguely successful is Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, but here they have the advantage of not having to compete with numerous other recent on-screen versions of the character, plus she isn’t actually in the film that much outside of the climactic battle.)

To understand all is to forgive all, or so the theory goes. I suppose it’s possible to understand the reasoning behind the creative choices the makers of BvS made – the perceived need to be tonally distinct from the Marvel films, the hope of launching a slate of further spin-offs, the desire to (once again) borrow liberally from The Dark Knight Returns, the importance of ‘being taken seriously’ (whatever that means in this context) – but does that excuse the film-makers making such a botch of a premise with so much potential? I have to say I think the answer is no. There’s probably an argument to be had over whether this is just a disappointment or an actual disaster, but what’s inarguable is that it really could and should have been much, much better.

 

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When I was a callow university student, many years ago now, I ended up taking as my dissertation topic the subject of the philosophical underpinnings of Artificial Intelligence. Highblown as this may sound, what it really boiled down to was my discussing endless repeats of Knight Rider with my supervising tutor over lavish quantities of coffee and doughnuts. Nevertheless, the dissertation itself turned out to be reasonably successful and I have taken a certain smug satisfaction from the way in which developments in the field have turned out to be broadly in line with my own poorly-articulated musings.

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I have retained an interest in the subject, too, and so I was always likely to go and see Spike Jonze’s Her, which – promisingly – looked like a non-action Hollywood SF movie, with the nature of AI as one of its central themes. However, I was somewhat rattled to find the film focussing on a fairly nondescript man heading into early middle age (he is played by Joaquin Phoenix) – he is socially reticent, has a failed marriage behind him, occasionally twiddles on the ukulele, and struggles to find the time to properly pursue his twin interests in peculiar computer games and internet pornography.

To be honest, friends, I was frankly wondering if I had grounds to sue the makers of Her for unauthorised use of my life story, but then the film launches off into rather less alarming territory. The man, Theodore, purchases a new OS (this is how the film labels an AI), which turns out to be voiced by Scarlett Johansson. The OS christens itself – or should that be herself? – Samantha, and she quickly makes herself an essential part of Theodore’s life. The relationship – or should that be quasi-relationship? Part of the cleverness of the film is how utterly nonjudgemental it is about this – between Theodore and Samantha quickly deepens, to their mutual satisfaction, and when Theodore’s continuing lack of romantic success leads him to the brink of despair, the possibility of an even deeper and more intimate connection occurs to them both. But is this particular state of harmony between man and machine even possible?

It is, of course, rather gratifying that what’s indisputably a serious science fiction film in the most rigorous sense of the term has made it onto the Oscar best film sort-of-short list. It hasn’t got a chance in hell of actually winning, of course, largely because I don’t see the Academy being quite prepared to take to its bosom a film with quite so much graphically articulated and somewhat kinky sexual content in it. I don’t generally have a problem with this sort of thing, but my general feeling is that the only thing worse than watching other people at it is listening to them talk about it, and there is a degree of the latter in Her, some of it quite bizarre.

Nevertheless, it is all perfectly consistent with the world of the film, which is a low-key, urban, somewhat hipsterish utopia (if that’s not an oxymoron). It is a world in which human interaction has become mediated by technology to a much greater degree – this is established from the very start, when we learn Theodore’s job is to write other people’s personal letters for them. It is a parody and exaggeration of our own, but not an absurd one, and it’s this which gives the film a certain relevance (well, maybe not if you live outside the First World, but since when are Hollywood movies ever made for that audience?).

And yet, as mentioned before, this is not a polemic, reactionary, or overtly traditionalist movie, bewailing the collapse of human-to-human contact in modern urban society. It pointedly does not present the relationship between Theodore and Samantha as something deviant or unhealthy. It is remarkably even-handed and actually rather sly in the way it plays with the audience’s expectations: I was expecting the story to ultimately find Theodore forced to choose between his empty and pointless liaison with Samantha and a decent, genuine relationship with a real person (perhaps Amy Adams’ equally lonely neighbour), perhaps with the time-honoured kicker of the AI turning into a vengeful simulant of Glenn Close from Fatal Attraction. This does not happen; the film pulls off the neat trick of remaining thoughtful, sensible, and yet unpredictable to the end.

Jonze’s script is thoroughly admirable, but its realisation is equally impressive – I’m not at all surprised that Joaquin Phoenix has been nominated for a raft of acting awards, rather that he hasn’t actually won more of them. He is in practically every scene of the film and manages to make a potentially inaccessible character very human and sympathetic. Johanssen is also good – but then Jonze has attracted an excellent cast, including Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde, Chris Pratt and others (Kristen Wiig and Brian Cox are amongst those making voice cameos).

This isn’t a flashily conventional movie, but rather a disconcerting and perhaps somewhat disturbing one. I can imagine some audiences being ultimately repelled by the fact it is about the fundamental nature of humanity and our shifting relationship with technology, than an orthodox romance – I liked it very much for exactly the same reasons, which may say more about me than the movie. History will prove the extent to which Her is either an oblique commentary on modern society, or a prophecy about the rise of post-human culture, but, for me, at this moment in time it is an impressively thoughtful and very accomplished one. It won’t win the Best Picture Oscar, and perhaps it doesn’t even deserve to. But for such an unusual film to end up on the shortlist should speak to its very high quality.

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There are some film-makers whose fondest dream is to oversee a franchise of billion-grossing summer blockbusters and, basically, retire to their own solid gold private island. Others seek gold of a different kind – they are the ones more interested in credibility, critical acclaim, and the odd gong. The very lucky ones amongst this latter group find their way into what I call the Gong Club: that elite group who, it seems to me, are permanently under observation by the people who decide the awards shortlists.

Tom Hanks has been in the Gong Club for a couple of decades now; others, like Judi Dench, Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep, and so on, are similarly long-term members. A recent addition to their ranks seems to be the writer and director David O Russell – 2010’s The Fighter did terribly well, 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook landed a Royal Flush of the acting Oscar nominations, and his new movie American Hustle is generating serious buzz for this year’s awards.

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Various familiar faces from his previous movies show up here, starting with Christian Bale. Bale plays late-70s con man Irving Rosenfeld, who embarks on a breathless romance with ex-dancer Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). They are initially very successful in persuading people to simply give them money as non-refundable application fees for non-existent savings opportunities, but this particular good thing comes to an end when they are busted by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper).

However, Richie offers them a deal: if they help him entrap and arrest enough corrupt businessmen and politicians, he will let them go free. Irving and Sydney have serious misgivings, but eventually realise they don’t have much choice. And so begins a frankly bizarre sting operation, involving a fake sheikh, millions of dollars of the FBI’s money, the mayor of New Jersey (played by Jeremy Renner), and Irving’s loose-cannon wife (Jennifer Lawrence)…

American Hustle has, for the most part, received extremely positive notices, and I can sort of see why: it does bear more than a passing resemblance to several other very respectable films. The true-life con-job angle, not to mention the late 70s setting, inevitably recalls the very successful Argo (and, indeed, Ben Affleck was attached to this project as director for a while), while another major focus of the plot – the lives and relationships of people caught up in criminality of different kinds – brings with it a definite whiff of Scorsese (Russell’s deft handling of a classic pop and rock soundtrack adds to this).

And in many ways American Hustle lives up to the standards of the films it is trying to imitate. This is a big, ambitious movie with a lot going on in it, and Russell marshals the various strands of the story with considerable skill – it works both as a caper comedy-thriller and a serious drama, if never quite both at the same time. The cast is largely made up of very talented performers really going for it with meaty, rounded parts, and there are many great moments, some visually arresting, some funny, some surprisingly gripping – a brief cameo from a thankfully on-form Robert de Niro is genuinely chilling.

On the other hand, I couldn’t quite shake the impression that this is a film going for it just a little too much, just a little too often. A 70s setting is a well-worn backdrop for a certain kind of American movie, and here the trappings appear to be getting a little out of control. At the start of the film, we meet the main characters and their defining features – Bale (insanely elaborate comb-over), Cooper (ostentatious perm), Adams (wardrobe slashed to the navel and beyond), Renner (gargantuan quiff) and Lawrence (huge hair). All of these things were just a bit too OTT to be completely credible, for me; the film seemed to be waving them in my face somehow. There’s quite a serious scene developing the relationship between Adams and Cooper, but both of them have their hair in curlers throughout, which inevitably undercuts it. Some of the performers also occasionally give the impression of getting stuck into their roles with a bit too much relish, as well – their characters are frequently as grotesque and unlikely as their personal grooming.

Perhaps there’s a touch of this in the plotting, too: as I said, it’s a sign of the film’s ambition that it sets out to fuse a fairly complex thriller plotline with an ensemble character drama, but I even got a sense of wild abandonment on the part of the film-makers here as well – an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach, with moments of comedy, romance, and drama piling up on top of each other as the story continues.

This is an enjoyable film, but not really one notable for its sense of restraint. I found watching it to be not entirely unlike my visit to the breakfast buffet of a major Las Vegas casino hotel several years ago – there’s nothing wrong with eating eggs and bacon, nor with eating waffles, nor with eating cowboy biscuits, or sausages, or pancakes. Eating large quantities of all of them in one sitting, on the other hand, is likely to produce distinct and not always pleasant sensations. So it is with American Hustle‘s let’s-do-everything-and-do-it-A-LOT approach. At least this time I don’t have myself to blame for it. A good film, I think, but not really disciplined enough to make the best use of its various assets.

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It is the Earth Year 2013, which by most people’s reckonings makes it 75 years since 1938: and so only an idiot would have bet against Warner Brothers, owners of DC Comics, bringing out a movie to celebrate the anniversary of the first publication of Superman. (I suppose one must be slightly surprised there isn’t another Batman movie on the cards for his 75th next year.) This is, by any reckoning, a prestige project and DC, quite wisely, appear to have surveyed recent adaptations of their properties and seen that by far the pick of the crop are Zach Snyder’s version of Watchmen and Christopher Nolan’s trilogy of Batman movies.

Man of Steel, consequently, is directed by Snyder and produced by Nolan (also involved is David Goyer, doyen of comic book movie scripting), and is refreshingly unencumbered by the need to reverence the quartet of Superman movies made by the Salkinds between 1978 and 1987. (I don’t want this to be an extended series of swipes at Superman Returns, which I reviewed back in 2006 anyway – but suffice to say it was bloated, dull, and too interested in paying homage to its predecessors. Though Brandon Routh was good in a tough role.)

man-of-steel-poster

Playing Superman this time around is British actor Henry Cavill (his nationality caused a bit of a fuss when he was cast, as I believe I mentioned), though we don’t get to meet him for a bit. The film-makers pick and choose which bits of the Superman legend to explore in detail and one of the areas they really go to town on is the last days of planet Krypton. Not only is Krypton falling to bits, but it is also wracked by civil war, with supreme head of the military General Zod (first name, one hopes, Neil) attempting a coup. (Zod is played by Michael Shannon.) With all this going on it is just as well that top Krypton boffin Jor-El is played by Russell Crowe, as this makes him a bit more of a bad-ass than any of his previous incarnations. (Crowe gets an impressive amount of screen-time for someone who technically dies in the first fifteen minutes of the movie.)

Once all the shooting and shouting and emoting between Jor-El and his wife Lara (Ayelet Zurer, whose supposed obscurity I was making wisecracks about only last week – hey ho) is over, it is pretty much business as usual as Superman origin retellings go. Our hero is launched off towards Earth while still a babe, while Krypton goes bang killing everyone apart from the occupants of its maximum security plot device (there’s such a thing as making a prison too secure).

From here the movie skips over most of Clark Kent’s infancy and boyhood in Kansas with his foster parents (Diane Lane and Kevin Costner), though we are treated to key flashbacks later on. As the story proper opens he is a lone drifter going from job to job, wondering who he is, trying to find his place in the world, and occasionally propping up the odd collapsing oil-rig should he find himself in the area. For his alien heritage means that he ‘can do things other people can’t’ (he has the gift for understatement too). Little does he realise his search for his own origins will attract the attention of others – possibly welcome attention, when it comes from ace reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams), almost certainly not when it comes from hostile survivors from his own planet…

Well, this is a somewhat idiosyncratic take on the Superman legend, but on the whole a successful one. The story’s handling of some of the classic elements is slightly baffling, and the structuring of the plot occasionally feels a bit peculiar – for example, one of the main beats is the arrival on Earth of vastly powerful aliens who demand that Superman is handed over to them… which would surely have had more dramatic potential had the people of Earth actually known Superman was there (he’s still operating incognito at this point). Likewise, if this movie forms the basis of a franchise (the signs are good), it’s really going to pummel credibility for Superman to have any kind of secret identity as Clark Kent – not only does one key character already know, but it’s hardly difficult to work out given much of what goes on here.

Then again, this is a film which is fighting hard to avoid any of the traditional Superman tropes that people might be inclined to think of as twee or old-fashioned. The clue is in the fact that this movie is called Man of Steel, rather than some variation on Superman – it’s a looong way into the movie before our hero picks up that particular title. The pants-outside-the-trousers component of his uniform has likewise vanished, and he appears to be wearing some futuristic version of chain mail rather than the usual tights (this is somewhat ironic given how many Robin Hoods are amongst his forebears). In short, the film is trying very hard to be a serious, mature piece of work. It’s still a film about a flying man in a cape, so there’s a limit to how successful the film-makers can be with this approach, and I for one would have preferred to see them treat the story with a slightly lighter touch and insert a little more comedy – but I expect wall-to-wall CGI and brooding seriousness is what the focus groups wanted.

It’s certainly a fabulous-looking movie: the production design seemed to me to be stuck in a slightly post-Matrix groove, but it’s still convincing and coherent. And anyone who has been waiting decades to see a fully-CGI’d Superman really do his stuff should be very happy: the protracted scenes in which Superman and the US army do battle with Zod and his minions are as spectacular and destructive as spectacular and destructive can be – I was pleasantly reminded of Independence Day at quite a few points in the course of the movie.

If this means that the performers occasionally seem a little swamped by what’s going on around them, that’s one of the pitfalls of making this kind of film. Michael Shannon is still impressively ferocious as Zod, while Russell Crowe brings every bit of his considerable presence to the film. Henry Cavill probably struggles a bit simply because of the nature of the script: given the delineation between Superman and Clark Kent doesn’t really exist in this particular story, he doesn’t get the same chance to show his range that some previous Supermen have had. He is still very convincing as this most modern of icons.

Then again, this is a very modern Superman film, with a strong sense of its own identity, and very distinct from every other version of the character I can think of. Reports suggest that this is just the first step in an (understandable) attempt by DC to repeat the success of Marvel Studio’s series of films about their characters. Quite how subsequent films based on Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, and so on, will slot in around this one I’m not entirely sure. On its own terms, though, this is a solid movie: I don’t quite see where future installments are going to go, and there are a few things about the plot of this one I’m not wild about (not least the way it is resolved) – but this is one of the strongest blockbusters of the year so far. And, in terms of its identity as a Superman film – I don’t think it’s by any means perfect, but neither can I think of any obvious ways in which it could be better. Impressive entertainment.

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Honestly, what kind of a proper bio-pic do you call this? Not a single goatee beard to be seen, no-one gets the matter of their tissues compressed to the point of death, and there’s no mention of Axos or the Sea Devils, let alone the Toclafane and the Untempered Schism. I ask you, whatever is the world coming to?

Oh, hang on: word in from the legal department is that Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is – and I think emphasis is required here just to cover ourselves – not supposed to be the life story of anyone, living, dead, or regenerated. Glad we got that sorted out. It is, of course, a high-octane personal drama very much in a similar style to There Will Be Blood.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, who at the start of the film is serving in the US navy towards the end of the Second World War. With customary deftness and economy, Anderson establishes that Freddie is a deeply troubled soul – whether due to his experiences in the service or not is not explored – with a number of serious issues. He drinks, he is socially awkward, and he has a fixation with sex. He is also prone to outbursts of violence. All of this ultimately results in him becoming a homeless drifter.

However, at this point he falls into the orbit of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a self-styled writer, explorer, physicist and theoretical philosopher. Dodd is the leader of a movement known as the Cause, offering a programme to help people deal with the traumas inherited from former lives (there’s a bit of reincarnation involved, apparently) – which is nevertheless, according to Dodd, rigorously rational. In fact it’s so scientific, it’s like science with an extra -ology! [Cut that out – much too risky – Legal Department]

Dodd takes a shine to Freddie (partly due to to Freddie’s special recipe for cocktails, which includes paint thinner) and Freddie joins the Cause, initially as an enthusiastic follower. But it soon becomes apparent that the relationship between the two men is one of unhealthy co-dependence, and hardly guaranteed to help either of them cope with life’s travails…

Well, there has been some talk that Lancaster Dodd is based on L Ron Hubbard, the sometime SF writer who founded the Church of Scientology, which may explain why Tom Cruise and John Travolta, amongst others, are conspicuously absent from the cast list here. (There have been claims that Hubbard told his peers in the SF community that writing was a mug’s game and the quickest way to get rich quick was to invent your own religion, but this sounds like a shocking calumny to me and I would never believe a word of it [Nice try, let’s see if it works – L.D.]) The film does a cheeky sort of dance on this topic, and Anderson has gone so far to say that Hubbard inspired Dodd, but the film is actually about drifters and seekers in the aftermath of a war, with the cult angle being entirely incidental. Is Dodd (and therefore, really, Hubbard) presented as a charlatan? The film comes very close in a few places, I have to say.

People occasionally suggest to me I should become the leader of my own cult – quite why I’m not really sure, and I’m equally uncertain I  want to know – but having seen The Master I don’t think I have the stamina for it anyway. Possibly I am being over-influenced by Hoffman’s portrayal of the Master, which is the latest in a long line of monumental performances he has delivered in films for Anderson and others. He is quite simply magnetic, and eerily plausible on every level. But he is very nearly matched by Phoenix, who is also utterly convincing as Freddie, albeit in a slightly different way: Hoffman’s turn is one of great subtlety and precision, while Phoenix has a much showier and more physical role. Watching the two of them together in this film, as they frequently are, is spellbinding stuff, although I think – when and if the Oscars are handed out – Hoffman comes out slightly ahead on points.

This is that kind of awards-conscious movie: classy, challenging, and thoughtful. It’s certainly not the sort of film you go to see just to relax and have a nice time – the film is fairly unflinching in some respects. In many ways it reminded me of Anderson’s last film, There Will Be Blood, another burningly intelligent and brilliantly made film built around a great central performance – but one which, for me, struggled in terms of its actual narrative.

It’s the same here, really, particularly the ending – it seems intentionally oblique. Once again, the impression is one of the actors being encouraged to do their thing, with Anderson recording their work with his usual skill – but no real sense of an actual story in mind. Possibly I am wrong and just too dim. And, to be sure, the performances, direction, and photography make this film extremely compelling and satisfying for much of its length. It’s just that, once again, Paul Anderson doesn’t quite deliver the complete package.

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