Man Of Steel ****

Prepare for a darker, more brooding Superman film than before, hardly surprising given The Dark Knight Rises creator Christopher Nolan’s hand in this, co-writing with his Batman collaborator David Goyer. If the mood does not absorb you into the trials and tribulations of being a superhuman on Earth, then director Watchmen Zack Snyder’s action-packed scenes will whisk you along in what is more blockbuster epic with obvious tones of Transformers (cinematography by Amir Mokri), Spider-Man (costume design by James Acheson) and even The Matrix and Avatar with the organic nature of a visually stunning Krypton. It’s a mash-up of all recent superhero films, without a shred of deliberate humour to it that Superman films of past had.

The story is a familiar one, with the baby Superman known as Kal-El being propelled into the solar system by his parents, Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and Lara Lor-Van (Ayelet Zurer), on route to Earth, after an environmental catastrophe ruins and condemns Krypton to extinction. With him, Kal-El takes the last DNA of all Kryptonians, against the expressed wishes of General Zod (Michael Shannon) who attempts to stage a military coup to save his planet but is imprisoned with his fellow officers.

Growing up on Earth, Kal-El becomes known as Clark Kent (adult Superman played by Henry Cavill), adopted child of Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane). Taught to hide his gift by his parents, Clark eventually works a series of jobs before one unintentionally exposes him to Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams), and sends a call sign to the escaped Zod and his army as to where to find him and the lost DNA. Earth becomes a battleground, fighting for its own survival and that of its species, with the help of Superman.

Although lengthy at 143 minutes, Snyder, Nolan and Goyer’s film does a stunning job of explaining more about the historical and environmental issues that came to send Kal-El to Earth. The organic and kaleidoscopic, if phallic visuals of the beginning part of the film are like a Star Wars/Avatar epic, which go to show the various elements in conflict on the planet. It provides a background like no other Superman film, injecting some originality into the life of DC Comics’ hero’s story.

The rest of the film is pure adrenaline rush: visual effects-heavy, set pieces that are totally reminiscent of the recent Transformers films and even the ‘parasitic’ actions of Zod’s organic ship plundering the Earth’s resources resembling the final scenes of The Avengers. The filmmakers even almost replicate the Thor standoff in a small Kansas town, with Superman against two of Zod’s troops. For some, the crash-zooms and super-whizzy effects may be a little overkill – and some feel overly long, but on the flip side, they do inject a huge surge of power into the notion of Superman and his abilities on Earth with destructive and awesome results.

Snyder’s casting cannot be faulted either. Cavill brings a more serious and sensitive Superman to the big screen, one more determined to unite the two species than ever before, dressed in a costume borrowed from Spider-Man. It’s a far more physically demanding role that merely zooming off into the sky; the controlled strength of the man is what is more on show here. Shannon owns Zod, his contorted facial expressions fit the part of a highly conflicted being. It is also quite intriguing that rather than pure murderous despot, the filmmakers have created a being with morals and a purpose that brings a bout of empathy for his cause, making him not so black in the black-and-white scenario.

Adams keeps Lane grounded and forever spirited in her endeavours, though where the story lacks is the idea of just how Kent and her really fall for one another, given we don’t see Kent join the paper until the end – granted, the physical attraction of Superman is enough alone, and Cavill fills the mesh-like suit to the average jumper exceedingly well, enough to have an army of admirers at his heels.

There are also some nice performances from Costner and Lane, the former is part of a nice subplot into how Kent controls his son’s urges and talent, even when tragedy faces them. Perhaps, Crowe’s appearance as the great Jor-El could be argued to consume more than enough screen time – the filmmakers get there money from his ghostly presence, like some Obi-Wan Kenobi-style character (again, paying homage to Star Wars).

There is probably an unnecessary, almost overindulgent ending between Superman and Zod, purely it seems to show the latter’s true allegiance with humankind – as if we weren’t aware of this already. This climax will divide opinion. Still, with demands from fans for more raw power and action from their superhero, and with a villain in Zod who is more on a par of strength, Snyder and co have gone to create something more relevant and darker (with Nolan’s touch), however much the other iconic elements of previous films (crippling Kryptonite and the dominant ‘S’ symbol) are played down in effect.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Oblivion ***

The future of mankind is ripe and fertile filmmaking ground, always holding some potential intrigue and hopefully throwing up new questions about our possible destiny. The latter is a must in the sci-fi genre, but not to the extent that some questions leave you unnecessarily hanging, in terms of simple plot explanation.

It’s true to say Tron Legacy director Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion starring box office biggie Tom Cruise is very much an homage to all sci-fi greats, from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars and The Matrix to RoboCop, even mirroring Disney’s WALL-E with its strong environmental issues. Stylish and slick production design aside, it’s very much a case of déjà vu, turning into a ‘spot the original trope’ game. At least Cruise fans get value for money as the dedicated actor delivers an equally dedicated performance once again that’s hardly surprising.

Cruise is probe engineer Jack, living and working alongside partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) as an ‘affective team’ tasked with making sure battle-scarred and decimated planet Earth provides the last of its natural resources to the surviving population living in space. However, Empire State Building flashbacks, the harrowing rescue of crash victim Julia (Olga Kurylenko) and an encounter with the supposed ‘enemy’, the ‘scavs’, an underground group of resistance fighters, starts Jack questioning the real reasons behind extracting the remaining resources, as well as his own purpose.

Oblivion has an entertaining, timeless and ethereal quality to it that 2001 did, as well as a sinister, computerised control freak at the helm (voiced by Melissa Leo), pulling mankind’s strings and meddling with minds. What starts out as a foreboding viewing experience with all the mysteries intact and yet unexplored, plus Cruise as Jack, our willing and capable guide, begins to lose steam during its two-hour-plus run-time as you struggle to get past a mash-up role call of elements of legendary sci-fi flicks, all the while waiting (and longing) for some originality that would allow this film to join their ranks.

Even the true value and mindset of the ‘enemy’, led by the wise and all-knowing Beech (Morgan Freeman), feels inadequately underdeveloped, cultivating in the usual ‘safe’ monologue from the leader as to their journey and their goal, while visually, smacking of a re-worked version of Terminator films that depict the underground plight of mankind post the apocalyptic man-verses-machine nuclear war.

Admittedly, Kosinski is a big fan of gadgetry (and his love of bikes), allowing his agile A-list star to show off his acute action hero skills that made him a hit in Minority Report and Mission: Impossible. The writer-director also doesn’t miss a trick in reminding us of the importance of environment preservation and what could be lost by portraying Jack’s idyllic mountain lake hideaway that somehow has been left untouched (complete with drinkable fresh water) by the planetary conflict.

If one can get past the annoying question as to the primary reason for the systematic plundering of resources that isn’t quite satisfactorily answered at the end, Oblivion does offer another serene, futuristic outlook to be fully immersed in and simultaneously threatened by, as well as a keen platform to show off its talented cast. It’s just a shame that the script is somewhat lacking with important untied ends, sadly following the pitfalls of last year’s Prometheus. The question of mankind’s fate should always be a topic of lively debate post viewing, but not frustrated its audience. That said Oblivion is the kind of well-polished film that will undoubtedly do well, solely as it relies on Cruise to carry it up the box office chart, rather than providing a unique voice or idea.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Red Tails ***

When you have a dream project, you want to do it the utmost service. The fact that Star Wars guru George Lucas is so passionate about the heroic feats of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African-American fighter-pilot squadron in WWII, means that he may be guilty of over-cooking the pudding while trying his hardest not to lean proceedings more towards a civil rights piece.

There is plenty to enjoy with Red Tails in terms of camaraderie and strength of spirit, but it feels a little too glossy and plays it too safe to the mark, rather than pushing the boundaries for a family film to recreate more of the obvious and most immediate dangers the airmen faced. In this respect, you can appreciate the criticism from some that it may trivialise some of the heroic real-life feats, in favour of playing dogfight video games.

It’s 1944 in war-torn Italy where an all-black fighter pilot group are based, tasked with the mundane flying jobs while the white pilots get to fight nose to nose with the Nazi enemy in the skies for Uncle Sam. Thanks to the tenacious nature of Colonel A.J. Bullard (Terrence Howard) in Washington who believes in his men’s flying skills, the Tuskegee Airmen become overnight heroes in delivering the US bombers to their target.

Lucas and co have put their trust into a virtually unknown cast of attractive males who instantly engage our interest with their joviality and easy spirit, regardless of the basic – sometimes stilted – lines of delivery. It’s obvious this is a Lucas venture, with a ‘boys and their toys’ perspective and love of action-packed stunts. With the polarised good guys and bad guys – complete with dastardly-looking Nazi henchman pilot, it’s impossible not to come down on the side of and root for the underdogs in grand story about overcoming adversity when you have talent.

But as the banter becomes second nature and the somewhat trifle unbelievable love story between arrogant but big-hearted airman Joe ‘Lightning’ Little (David Oyelowo) and a local white Italian girl – who both never experiencing any local racism during their tryst, thank goodness for the thrilling aerial fights to reignite the scene. They may well be on the CG-heavy side but they sweep you up in the pride-swelling glory of what these pilots achieved. Perhaps it doesn’t fully represent a truthful historical account but it cannot fail to make a good impression about loyalty and honour in a present-day world sadly lacking. In that case, it may spurn some to read up more about the history afterwards.

Naturally, there is a sense of impending doom that accompanies any such war film – someone must shrug off their mortal coil; it’s just the time it takes for this to happen that makes the wait for us (and the boys) all the more unnecessarily lengthy at times. The only dangers in the meantime are some of the boys’ bad habits, one of which bewilderingly causes catastrophe in the air but is hardly of earth-shattering consequence, considering the build up to it. Again, the immediate threat of danger is diffused, and this is where the film then falls back on the boys’ winning personalities to save the day.

Red Tails is a war action buff’s matinee delight. It could be argued that making a more gritty account would have detracted from the focus on the strong buddy element and group connection felt while watching these remarkable men. At the same time, those knowledgeable on the Tuskegee Airmen subject may feel a little short-changed. But it cannot be argued that theirs isn’t a story worth telling here – however diluted.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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John Carter ***

Writer-director Andrew Stanton tries his hand at live action this time, putting some of his fun Pixar magic from the likes of award-winning Finding Nemo and Wall-E into John Carter, an other-worldly adventure staged on Mars – or Barsoom, as adapted from Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs’s work, A Princess of Mars. Whatever faults this film has, it does something that the dull Cowboys and Aliens from last year tried and failed to do; marry Western and sci-fi genres and the analogies between American civil war history between cowboys and Indians far better, opening up the Barsoom landscape that looks like Arizonan plains to a wider audience.

The film tells the story of war-weary, former military captain John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), who is inexplicably transported to Mars where he becomes reluctantly embroiled in a conflict of epic proportions amongst the inhabitants of the planet, including green-skinned Tharks led by Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe) and the Heliumians and their science-loving and beautiful Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins). In a world on the brink of collapse after a warring faction led by a Zodanga fighter named Sab Than (Dominic West), controlled by immortal, shape-shifting Therns, led by Matai Shang (Mark Strong), fight with the Heliumians, Carter rediscovers his humanity when he realizes that the survival of Barsoom and its people rests in his hands.

John Carter, solidly depicted by virtual unknown this side of the Atlantic, Tarzan-looking Friday Night Lights TV star Kitsch, is an all-American anti-hero turned hero that you want to rally behind. The plot of a stubborn, greedy man ‘coming of age and wisdom’ is an all too familiar one that still has mileage here for the non-Burroughs fan, while satisfying our curiosity about Man’s voyage and hopeful life discoveries on another planet in our solar system.

John Carter is also beautifully visual and creative in its scenery enough to capture and distract you from the fairly thin premise and weakly portrayed passions of why the factions are at war. Naturally, the lack of water seems to be the only key issue that both planet and Martian has, and the story leaves the door open for a further solar system exploration into this. But even this major problem isn’t necessarily clear until cone-headed Shang mentions it. And yes, the environmentalists out there will smile at the filmmakers’ sense of purpose at highlighting our own planetary dangers in this respect.

Kitsch and Collins are both Amazonianly striking in this with a playful banter, teasing enough for adults to know the presence of sexual chemistry, and for children to find entertaining. Stanton injects a camp element into the whole affair too, allowing you to forgive its singularly B-movie overtones. However, much this film rips off classic sci-fi elements from Star Wars, Star Trek, Xena: Warrior Princess and the recent Avatar films, with the Tharks long-limbed appearance, there is nothing but fun and fantasy to be hand here in equal 3D measure – but nothing fresh on the Barsoom horizon either. And a medallion discovery that serves as the porthole between worlds is hardly imaginative either, even if we soon delight in drawn-out moments for laughs of watching Carter first leap and bound over the Barsoom terrain, mimicking an Earthling spaceman minus his suit.

John Carter the film has the unenviable task of filling in the back-story of the Barsoom history while keeping a sense of adventure burning in the run-time. What it fails to do with any real substance with the latter it makes up for in the former as you cannot deny wanting to explore more of the new world you are transported in and the origins of its beings. In this sense, Stanton and co have created the structure of another intriguing universe and history, but unlike Cameron’s Pandora, Barsoom has been let down by the filmmakers’ flimsy concepts in this that feel underdeveloped in favour of fleshing out the main players, and there is no real sense of connection between human and alien – like between the Na’vi and Jake Sully – that would have pulled John Carter out of the grandiose B-movie league.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Gulliver’s Travels – 3*

Jack Black is an acquired taste. Let’s face it; if you’re not a fan, you wouldn’t even contemplate going to see a film, which is effectively another stage for self-depreciating Blackmania. The only issue is whether as a fan of the tale of Gulliver’s Travels, the version from director Rob Letterman – the man behind Monsters vs. Aliens and Shark Tale – will entertain or irk you. If you are loyal to the quintessentially English literary text, you may find the contemporary American (New York) spin a bit too brash, as Gulliver becomes a bungling mailroom employee with aspiring ideas of being a travel writer to impress the girl (travel sub-editor Darcy (Amanda Peet)), and is sent off to the Bermuda Triangle on his first assignment.

Low and behold, hapless Gulliver hits a waterspout in a vicious storm, and gets spat out on the shores of Lilliput, full of little people who think he’s a beast – well, he is a man giant to them. The rest is set for a fest of Black comic over-indulgence, Black flabby flesh over-exposure, Black eyebrow gymnastics, and Black taunts at the stuffiness of old English etiquette. The latter is what gets a little irksome at times, especially with when Gulliver revamps Lilliput in New York style with garish billboards and American casuals. Admittedly, the part where he goes all ‘School of Rock’ (Guitar Hero moves) is as amusing as an impatient kid trying to impress a parent. The re-enacting of cinematic classics, like Star Wars and Titanic for the Lilliput royal family as a theatrical re-enactment of the great Gulliver’s life back home get most of the satirical laughs.

What makes these moments are the impressive supporting cast of Brits in deadpan humour mode, including Emily Blunt, Billy Connolly, Chris O’Dowd, James Corden, and Catherine Tate – although, sadly, we get to see very little input from the latter lady. O’Dowd appears to match the Black idiocy for the British contingent as pompous General Edward, and Blunt complements as bored, but smart and very beautiful Princess Mary he’s betrothed to. But it’s fellow countryman Jason Segel as the love-struck Horatio yearning for Mary’s affection and as Black’s diminutive sidekick who often steals the scenes from Black, especially he wooing of Mary with a contemporary love song classic.

There is also one inspired moment in the film, where Gulliver wakes up in a dolls house and gets terrorised by a youngster that’s almost Lynchian in respect, but the rest of the film is pantomime fluff that still touches on the original tale’s themes of man’s treatment of man, petty differences between sides/religions and political corruption, but all done in a far lighter manner. Unfortunately, the film concept swings from Wild Wild West to Transformers – perhaps a precaution to keep the youngsters happy with a bit of robot wars? Prepare, also, as always, for the big morals at the end, delivered by Black who always comes to his adult senses for a mere split second, after a burst of childish lunacy.

Black does what he does best in Gulliver’s Travels; he’s a man-child at heart, employed to dumb down any tale for the kids. There is an uglier side in the shameless advertising throughout, targeting the adults who have nowhere to hide from their offspring in the cinema shadows, especially the Lilliput soldiers’ infatuation with Gulliver’s iPhone. Still, a jolly funny song and dance later reiterates that neither star nor cast have taken this seriously, and as a bit of family escapism on Boxing Day, it’s adequately entertaining, and far better than your local stage panto.

3/5 stars

By L G-K

TRON: Legacy – 3*

The original Tron was silly, almost camp, with the programs’ skin-tight, luminous Spandex-styled suits and comical overreactions. But it was undeniably groundbreaking, especially in production design and imagination. It also helped to later produce an Oscar-winning actor in Jeff Bridges, who isn’t shy of playing an odd array of quirky characters, from Starman, Lebowski and Jack (Fisher King), to the character he revives in this latest episode, computer geek Kevin Flynn, inventor and master of The Grid and Tron. Flynn is back, but now there’s a son on the loose. But can we get exited, as we did the first time around, especially as it’s offered in 3D?

It’s fair to say that the production design on this is pretty spectacular, and at times, exhilarating to witness in 3D, especially the high-octane games sequences, when Flynn’s son Sam, played by a rather two-dimensional, but eye-pleasing Garrett Hedlund, gets beamed into the Grid and into the gladiatorial-style death event, after poking around in his dad’s old games arcade. The visuals are a sci-fi lover’s ideal fantasy – Avatar aside.

The problem is the basic CGI effects, especially on a supposedly younger-looking Bridges/Flynn as he tells his young son a bedtime story about Tron at the start, before he mysteriously disappearing from his life. The facial features are less than realistic and rather ghoulish, prompting even this critic afterwards to question whether it’s meant to be Flynn himself, or possibly, one of Flynn’s two incarnations/alter-egos, the evil Clu or Tron who have made it into the real world? But then there wouldn’t be a story, if Clu had succeeded. Therefore, a little more cash should have been spent on trying to get a youthful Bridges right, what with all the Hollywood wizardry out there now. And what about good old-fashioned make-up and prosthetics? Surely this would have fared a little better?

Even Bridges seems a trifle bored at times at being back in the Grid, delivering a confusing mix of Zen Master one minute, to superhuman being and Star Wars warrior the next in scenes resembling a Pet Shop Boys’ Go West video, particularly when Clu’s rising program army try to breakthrough into our unordered world and create order (good luck). If it weren’t for Bridges and a hilariously camp turn by Michael Sheen as the slippery underworld entrepreneur Caster/Zuse who looks like a cross between David Bowie and Mr Wonka, this film would be all lights and no action. Even the hedonistic and adventurous Hedlund – muscles, motorbikes and all – would fail to keep the interest of the youth audience for its entire duration.

What the film has in dazzling lightshows and Star Wars-styled battles, it lacks in content and purpose. Admittedly, it is a very interesting concept, in that a son-with-abandonment-issues goes back to find and confront his father, and it could have been a highly intelligent piece of sci-fi history in the making. Sadly, it’s all a little flat, and it seems to imply that who cares when we are dazzled by the imagery, which looked stunning on a standard cinema screen, let alone an IMAX one.

Throw in an attractive DNA-altered being in Quorra, played by the gorgeous Olivia Wilde, and you have even more reason to keep the geeks hooked. The problem was her ability to (warning: spoiler) enter the real world was still never fully explained, apart from some swirling DNA-style diagrams in a glass container. Also, there was something quite troublingly incestuous about her relationship with both father and son, implying ‘companionship’ of sorts with both, but with Sam getting to ‘share’ her in the end, which is very ‘arthouse French Cinema’, but just translates as seedy, here, and in such a film.

The problem with the sequel is fans of the old may not register or relate with the new – even their hero Bridges is not as enthusiastic, vibrant and verging on crazy as the younger Flynn of the 80s, almost like a burnout, former shell of himself. They won’t recognise the new 2010 surroundings either. A younger audience has been brought up on a diet of The Matrix films, so there are obvious similarities, which may prompt a blasé “seen it” attitude.

However, it is visually striking – creepy CGI Bridges aside – and super slick and sexy, transporting you into a world that is full of concepts and possibilities about a future, future time. But with all the computer and mobile technology around today, the film-makers could have run wild with their imaginations and channeled it in further to make it truly contemporary. Another real plus point is the cracking soundtrack from Daft Funk that sets off the action scenes perfectly, further energising the visuals. TRON: Legacy is like the bimbo of sci-fi films; all looks and no substance, but flatters you anyway.

3/5 stars

By L G-K