Trailer Tuesday: Her

Every Tuesday, I will post a trailer I saw in the past week that I felt was worth sharing.

Her:

Written and directed by Spike Jonze,  Her will be released on December 18th, and stars Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams, and Rooney Mara.

After the initially limited release, the film will go wide in January, to qualify for an award run.

I chose the trailer because I think the film has a good chance, particularly given Jonze’s track record, of really capturing that particular brand of loneliness where any, even illusory, human contact, can be both incredibly difficult and completely vital.

Karen O, who also wrote a lot of the music for Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are, which I thought was wonderful, also wrote a track for Her. 

 

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Man of Steel

Poster of "Man of Steel"

Poster of Man of Steel (Courtesy of Wikipedia.org)

For fans of comic books, the last few summers have been hugely exciting. Marvel, now property of Disney, has been putting out movies based on characters from their movie universe since 2008’s Iron Man, making piles of money on even their lesser-known characters like Thor. This culminated, of course, in last year’s release of Avengers, which broke countless records in the Box Office, and was a pretty great action movie to boot. Warner Brothers, on the other hand, have been looking on in what must have been horror, as they saw their Dark Knight franchise draw to a close, as successful a close as it may be; and their numerous attempts to put a Justice League movie, based on the wealth of DC Comics characters under their ownership, all ended in development hell.

If the hype is to be believed, however, Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel will be a new start for the other half of comics’ big two. Considering it is being produced by Christopher Nolan, there were predictable changes made – characters added, changed, plot points altered, storylines condensed. All of this is understandable, and one gets the clear feeling that we are witnessing the beginning of a strong new movie franchise. Superman in this movie is angrier, edgier, and while the film overall is certainly not flawless, it is a fine start.

While it is standard for new superhero franchises to begin with an origin story, Man of Steel specifically follows the example set by Batman Begins. Both avoid a linear storyline, allowing them to avoid the obligatory boring first hour where the principal players are set up. Instead, they are able to tell the required parts of the back-story as they become relevant, in flashbacks. Similarly, the film is as much a setup as anything, the audience finally seeing the character as an established hero at the end. It is an effective technique, to be sure, and it certainly leaves one looking forward to the inevitably upcoming sequel. It does, of course, leave the film open to the obvious danger of the end goal being, in a way, the status quo.

Luckily, great care is taken with this film to ensure it is anything but boring – to the point that the excitement almost becomes dull by over-saturation. The action is intense and fast-paced, and for fans of action cinema, initially glee-inducing. This is not, as promised, your father’s Superman, and Henry Cavill is no overgrown boy scout. Unfortunately, as much as the redefinition is a welcome one, the lack of earnestness on part of the character which has always been characterised by his care for humanity leaves one with a cynical aftertaste. The one promise the film fails to deliver on is Superman saving us. Sure, he wins, as we knew he would, but despite the numerous Christ imagery, one never gets the feeling the Man of Steel does any of it for us. There’s an adversary to be bested, which is accomplished. It is as if caring was deemed “too lame” for modern audiences. Consequently, he ploughs his similarly invulnerable opponents through countless buildings, seemingly giving no thought to what no doubt must be thousands of innocents within. It is true his enemies must be defeated at any cost, and even if Metropolis is destroyed completely in the process, a military strategist would deem it an acceptable loss when weighed against saving the entire planet. Clark Kent, however, is not in the military, he was raised by farmers in the heartland of Kansas. To Superman, even a few people dying is NOT an acceptable loss, inevitable though it may be, and he must make every effort at every turn to prevent it. That’s what makes him a great, and ultimately, vulnerable character – without that vulnerability, the character would be the epitome of boredom.

The change makes sense, of course, from a marketing perspective. The film does end on a note of Superman setting himself up as the resident protector of mankind, and the hope is, I think, that now that the franchise is set up, the character will be allowed to return to his actual roots. Here, too, there is a comparison to be made with producer Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy – while in the first instalment, Batman is perfectly happy to simply allow his enemy a fall to his death, an analogous confrontation with the Joker in the second film ends in the stalemate that defines the character – he is unwilling to kill, or through inaction, allow the death of a human being. The cultural cache and the box office assured by the first film of the franchises allows for greater complexity in the follow-up.

The cast of the film certainly warrants mention. Here the supporting actors are actually better known than Henry Cavill himself, who not only looks the part, but projects the character’s strength with ease. Lois Lane is probably the best-known non-powered character in the Superman mythos, and Amy Adams’ version of the intrepid reporter is almost certainly the finest seen on film so far. She projects confidence and intelligence; gone are the days of Ms. Lane, an investigative journalist, not realizing that her subject, the man she is in love with, and colleague are the same person. I, for one, couldn’t be happier, I always thought that glasses obscuring a superheroes identity were by far the least believable element of the entire story, flying and heat-vision included. In the rest of the cast, we have Russell Crowe as Jor-El, Superman’s birth father, defending his son in both living and holographic form fiercely. Kevin Costner and Diane Lane, on the other hand, teach the child in the ways of being human, the adoptive father controversially instructing his son to keep his powers hidden, for fear of prosecution. This is an interesting dynamic, but one can barely help but miss the old Pa Kent, who taught the young Clark to help others at all costs. Of course, every hero is only as interesting as his villain, and Michael Shannon’s General Zod is the embodiment of menace. While there is no particularly great complexity to the character, he is a worthy adversary, to be sure, due to the absolute conviction of the performance, his stern expression the absolute picture of grim, terrible determination.

Ultimately, therefore, purely as setup, Man of Steel is a fine film. In visual terms, it defines for what may be the next decade the way that DC universe’s superheroes fight – they are out for blood, move at terrifying speed, and their fights are akin only to natural disasters in terms of destruction. Whereas Richard Donner famously made us believe some thirty-five years ago that a man could fly, Zack Snyder showed us that a man could punch another guy through a skyscraper in the blink of an eye. And for fans of superheroes, that’s cool. We want to see that. But we also want to see our heroes care about things, have desires, suffer from their failures… So here’s hoping. In the meantime, as one of the last lines in the film goes, “welcome to the planet”, Superman!

The Master

I can’t pretend to understand or appreciate The Master fully. What comes through immediately in viewing the film, however, is that it is a film of substance. It is unmistakable – Paul Thomas Anderson’s direction is, as always, completely assured, confident. Philip Seymour Hoffman is convincing without compare. All of this is to be expected by now, however. It is Joaquin Phoenix that steals the show, submerging himself completely in a character that is brimming with aggression and animalistic impulse.

In time of peace the character of former soldier Freddie Quell is almost pathetic, boozing unstoppably, leaving a trail of drunken disorientation behind him. In the aftermath of one of his stunts, he seeks refuge on the yacht of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the leader of a vaguely religious, somewhat psychologically inclined society, and the focus of a genuine cult of personality. The others on the boat, mostly friends and family of the titular Master, follow him unquestioningly and the movie makes no attempts to prove the legitimacy of this regime to us. Instead, in an early scene, the strength of the hypnosis-like technique employed by Hoffman’s character, and perhaps even more significantly, Freddie’s eagerness for the “processing”, as it’s called, is put on display. By placing the subject under suddenly stressful conditions, the Master forces them to live out a sort of psycho-drama, whether by recalling genuine memories or inviting them to create, and by repetition imprint newly created ones, which are claimed to be recollections of one’s past lives. This, which is referred to by believers of “the Cause” as awakening, but to anyone outside of the movement looks suspiciously like psychological manipulation and trickery, is fiercely believed and defended by the members of the group. In a significant scene, Mr. Dodd is called upon to defend his beliefs, but while claiming to respect opposition and skepticism, ends up shouting down and cursing at his opponent. The brutality of the attack on the person of the sceptic is then promptly followed up by a physical attack against them committed by Freddie. While Freddie is chastised for the actions by the Master, one cannot escape the feeling that neither have much regard or patience for the views of others.

The film is focused heavily on the relationship between two men. Their differences, as it becomes apparent, are far more surface-level than either would like to admit. Instead, the Master’s poise and sophistication are hiding a fairly savage nature. Both men enjoy wrestling each other, speeding on a motorcycle, drinking vile alcoholic potions which Freddie brews, and laughing, despite Mr. Dodd’s claims that the activities are entirely animalistic in nature. If any true hypocrisy could be said to be exposed in the film, it is that, instead of the occasionally obvious fiction of some of the Master’s other claims. At his core, the character strives for control over others, and simultaneous freedom from other’s dominion. Freddie is much the same, although he does not strive for the centre of attention as readily. In turn, he is chastised by his friend for seeking the freedom he craves, being told that the impulses that occasionally take him to violence are imprints, perhaps from aliens from another world, and emotional scars from previous lives. While the subsequent training he is put through is supposedly meant to free him from this, what it does in reality is systematically break down his ego to the point of altering his sense of reality completely.

Another figure behind all of this is Amy Adams’s character, the Master’s current wife. She is as firm with her husband as she is to anyone else, and clearly has a very good understanding of the manipulative techniques her husband uses, to the point where she employs the same methods to get her husband to quit drinking. As the two men become more inseparable, she pushes for Freddie’s rejection from the community – but she does so subtly, not letting her true intentions and feelings be known. Her quiet control over her surroundings is surpassed only by her occasional insecurity in view of anything that might threaten her position, which includes Freddie.

The true meaning of the film shows itself in the final two scenes. One, where the Master almost breaks down in expectation of their final separation, showing just how much he truly cares for his protegé, despite the imminent rejection of the same man. The other shows the true nature of the power dynamic of the relationship Lancaster Dodd forges with his followers, in particular with Freddie. Freddie employs the same technique that was used on him on another, but the setting and context of the scene shows the true effect it’s had on him, as well as potentially the true intentions of the head games on display, albeit perhaps not literally.

The acting on display in the film is, across the board, transformative. One never gets the sense of watching actors perform, but instead of watching people, interesting, occasionally emotionally or physically twisted characters interact. As stated before, Joaquin Phoenix’s character is in that respect the most interesting, in that it is the character that requires the actor to reach the most, that is the furthest away from, what one assumes, is likely a well-adjusted person. The psychological scarring that the character begins with is obvious, and it is difficult to decide if the subsequent conditioning he undergoes makes him better, somewhat more in charge of himself, or merely sneakier, more dangerous.

A full analysis of the film would require many more viewings, and more space than can be dedicated here. However, there is little doubt that of the films being shown in Kino Pavasaris this year, this will be one that will make an impact and be remembered in film history. The relationships and meaning of the various themes in the movie are not easily categorized and defined, but that should not be confused with a lack of meaning. The value of the film is that, much like life, it contains no heroes, no clear denouncement of anything on display, merely honest portrayal.