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The power of flight means a lot to me.

Man of Steel is the movie that will do for Superman what Batman Begins did for Batman. This does not mean it’s perfect. Like with Batman Begins and due to their having the same writer, there are stretch-marks here and there that feel like the pangs of a mighty child whom suffered a difficult birth. Man of Steel is probably a much better film than Begins, however, if only because as a directorial effort it far surpasses the often clumsy Begins. The only reason I compare these movies is because it is the Dark Knight trilogy of Christopher Nolan’s that most directly informs the project. This ends up coming up more as a writing comparison, because of David Goyer, than anything else.

Zack Snyder is making movies at his peak right now and Man of Steel is the finest distillation of his tremendous, possibly unique strengths and sensibilities. He knows what kinds of things people want to see in a Superman movie and he was absolutely the right guy for this job. He understands instinctively how to shoot and score and direct in a way that keeps this movie both epic and grounded which seems to me like a very difficult balancing act. The purest joys of Man of Steel are derived from its cinema, not it’s story. For one thing, Man of Steel is a sensory slam dunk with constantly beautiful imagery accompanied by rousing, grandiose music. I said the same sort of things about Sucker Punch and probably about Watchmen but here is a creativity backed by serious resources and unhampered by the demands of adaptation or of authorial vision. Free from the responsibilities of writing the movie or slavish translating a beloved, singular story, Snyder is allowed to play in the sandbox like the visionary architect that he is.

All credit where it’s due, Goyer is consistently a writer whose work I struggle with liking. His pretentious, on the nose themes and speeches and indulgence in cheesy, pandering one-liners that induce cringes instead of the limp grins they’re going for. That said, Goyer frequently takes ideas and concepts from comics and makes them work on a very different kind of paper. He’s the guy who made Blade work (though he deep-sixed that franchise when he tried to direct it) and he’s likely who we have to thank for fucking ninjas in Begins and the best-written (let alone performed) Joker we’re ever likely to get. Man of Steel is not free from his irritating indulgences: they have been pared down making cringey shit few and far between but also resulting in that shit being even more noticeable and jarring than usual. I’ll get to specific examples later.



An elevator full of dysfunctional characters, what could go wrong?

Without the spectacle that stood in for accessibility in There Will be Blood or Magnolia, Paul Thomas Anderson here engages a quieter and potentially more profound exploration of another element of human, particularly masculine, nature. PTA is one of the best living filmmakers and The Master maintains that reputation more than adequately. It’s a masterpiece of tension and character, delivering astonishing craft both behind the camera (one of the best shots I’ve seen this year) and in front of it (performances like wow).

It will be a difficult movie for most people to get into. Especially if they have little appreciation for or openness to performance. Film Crit Hulk often insists that acting is a thing that everyone talks about but few understand or appreciate fully. I’d say that The Master is one of the movies that feels like a reward for people who know good acting when they see it, and might even be a source of discovery for those who haven’t developed an affinity for it. In other words, The Master is an “actors’ movie”. I mention this because it’s the chief point of access for the audience. You engage with everything else that’s going on through the consistency and quality of the performances.
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I’ve been waiting for this film for a long time. Darren Aranofsky was supposed to make it with Brad Pitt and Wahlberg like 4 years ago or something. Wahlberg stayed attached, kept training, and eventually Bale jumped on and they got David O. Russel to direct. Nice work, guys. Now we get The Fighter.

Which… turned out to be only be okay. There are a lot of great smaller moments, really true moments about family. There is also a lot of hilarious shit, especially Micky Ward’s psychotic legion of sisters. Holy fuck.

Seriously, these women belong in a Mad Max film as a band of roving cannibalistic fuggos. Seriously, they have names like Red Dog and Pork.

Mostly, though, this is less of a boxing movie than it is one about grown men learning how to act like it. Micky sort of has his shit together but he is too reliant on his family and bonds of filial loyalty impressed on him by his brother (Dicky Eklund, Bale’s character) and mother. Disappointingly, he only really gets it together and strikes out “on his own” because of a woman and also because his family fucks him over so bad he has little choice. This is a Hollywood contrivance and a boring one that demotes the film.

Dicky doesn’t fare much better but at least his wake up call is more poignant. Watching himself in prison after drawing a crowd of spectators for his “big moment” and seeing the sad and sorry state of his fucked up life is what does it. This is dramatic and ooo and awww kind of shit, but it feels like a more honest catalyst. I get that people draw strength from each other, but it seems like Micky simply places that same childish dependance he had on his family with Charlene (Amy Adams, who is awesome in this movie). Since the movie doesn’t pause the inspiring journey shit long enough to reflect on Micky’s inability to move on, I call foul.

The boxing stuff, in spite of all Wahlberg’s hard work, is a bit disappointing too. I do like the emphasis placed on Dicky’s intelligence about the sport and how necessary this is for Micky’s success. The film actually works best when it’s centered on the stuff surrounding the boxing itself and that’s good since 80% of it is about that. Anyway, if you’re looking for a film with epic boxing matches you’ll want to check out Ali or Play it to the Bone instead of this.

I should say that it’s really good to see Bale having some fun. He usually takes serious roles where he gets to be all grim and forbidding. His rep for this isn’t improved by his method actor tantrums or whatever either. I like him best in the fucked up roles he does so well, of which this is the Lite version. Amy Adams is kind of amazing, going against the type she’s stuck to in order to play a badass who is actually kind of a bitch.

My girlfriend leaned over at one point and said that she hated every single character in the movie. I get that and it’s going to turn a lot of people off. For me, the realism of cloistered, poor people life hits home as does the complex and mostly negative web of family ties and the effect of that on the characters. I like movies about poor people in Boston because, in a very simple and unfettered way, they are about people I grew up around. Boston is a place with its own character, but the geometries of that lifestyle are always the same. Sure I don’t know what it’s like to be a boxer one bad fight away from forced retirement, and I also don’t know what it’s like to be addicted to crack but I do know what it’s like to deal with family conflicts that seem inescapable even when they aren’t. Self-absorbed brothers and overbearing mothers are also things I know about.

And of course, there is the fact that steps are taken to keep at least some of these guys likable. Mark Wahlberg is less likable in roles like this than he is in more colorful stuff but his physical acting and general reliability as an anchor for a more eccentric supporting cast really works here. The character is a bit of a baby, but he’s sympathetic if only because his sisters are so damn crazy. Dicky is a good father, and when he gets it together the layers of stupidity, carelessness, and crack addicted malarky peel back to reveal the intelligence and clarity of focus he had to have to be such a good boxer in the first place. I also think Charlene is likable if only because she’s in a crappy position that is a slightly more violent and combative version of what I’m sure is a normal situation for many women (and men) who are disapproved of and disliked by their SO’s family immediately and uncompromisingly. That she gives Micky enough shit to get him to man up also helps her look better.

Aside from the leads, there were people like Micky’s dad (Rescue Me veteran and all-around man’s man Jack McGee) who suffers his horrific family with humor and irrepressible good nature. That he didn’t murder Alice Ward is a miracle without even thinking about how he didn’t drown her litter of nattering white trash daughters.

So the girlfriend wasn’t entirely right and I should really ask her if she still felt that way at the end. Doesn’t really matter, the characters would never be likable enough to completely save the movie from being okay instead of great, which it could have been. I don’t need characters to be likable to think that a movie is good or to enjoy it. But who knows, maybe it would have gone enough extra miles to make a bigger difference than I’m saying now.

Ultimately,  The Fighter is a bit of a disappointment then but your mileage may vary if you can overlook the cliches and undercooked boxing scenes and focus more on the elements that work. People are going to see it anyway because Christian Bale is fucking Batman and somehow Mark Wahlberg can still draw crowds in spite of his ridiculously, almost suspiciously bad career decisions these last few years.

Apparently if he gets tired of the Hollywood game, he could go pro like Mickey Rourke did.


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