Reckless Review – CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A BRIEF LIFE by Peter Ackroyd

Charlie Chaplin: A Brief Life, the new biography by Peter Ackroyd, definitely lives up to its billing. Yet for all its brevity, it’s packed with telling details about Chaplin and his life and work. And at times, it’s really two biographies in one, as Ackroyd consistently describes the polarity between the Little Tramp, “Chaplin’s shadow self or alter ego,” and the man himself, which becomes the through line of the story of their parallel lives.

Where the Little Tramp was infused with “common humanity,” Chaplin apparently demonstrated very little or none of that trait in real life. Simply put, he used many friends and colleagues like the props in one of his films, tossing them aside when he was done. He expected absolute fidelity from his lovers and wives while pursuing any other woman who struck his fancy. He seemed to flirt with Communism but equivocated about his beliefs and continued to make a fortune from the stock market.

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If “hypocrite” is one way to describe Chaplin, another might be “control freak.” I had already known that he was a perfectionist who took on nearly every task in the making a film, but here Ackroyd relates this tendency to the entertainer’s constant anxiety about poverty while giving specifics about the multiple takes and bullying Chaplin employed on set, techniques that wore down his actresses and crew. “Multiple takes” could often mean tens, in some cases hundreds. The scene in City Lights where he buys a flower from a flower girl (Virginia Cherrill), in the process discovering that she is blind, “took two years and 342 takes to assemble.”

The reporting of the City Lights story is just one example of the remarkable even-handedness Ackroyd maintains throughout the book. He is sympathetic to the entertainer’s childhood trauma, tracing the roots of Chaplin’s personality in his unstable, impoverished early life in truly dismal South London, but he doesn’t shy away from “the erratic, whimsical and imperious way in which Chaplin conducted his private life” either. Of his relationship, or lack thereof, with Cherrill, Ackroyd writes, “At the age of twenty she may have been too old for him.” Chaplin’s ill treatment of Lillita MacMurray (aka Lita Grey), first cast as leading lady in The Gold Rush, may be the most egregious example of his behavior towards women, but there are many other episodes presented here.

Despite the intermittent unpleasantness of his subject, the author also manages to capture the magic of Chaplin’s work, imparting a desire at least in this reader to see more of it, particularly A Woman in Paris, with which “Chaplin established a new cinema of social manners as well as a novel style of acting,” influencing both Ernst Lubitsch and Michael Powell. By what alchemy can someone so detached and cruel produce such heartbreaking emotions in the audience, about which he was ambivalent?

To sum up, Brief Life is a fascinating read. Obviously, completely new content would be an impossibility, but Ackroyd’s perspective on Chaplin’s duality is refreshing and insightful. As regular readers know, I am a relatively new silent film fan, and I learned quite a bit. If there is any flaw in it, it is the lack of footnotes or endnotes; I prefer the line between facts and interpretation to be clearer than that. There is, however, an extensive bibliography. It also does this designer’s heart good to see a book so appropriately well-crafted and old-fashioned — beautifully typeset, complete with a colophon, and silent-era-style typefaces for the headings, on deckle-edged pages. In some cases they do make them like they used to. Brief Life is perfect for any of those with an interest in filmmaking in general or Chaplin in particular…as long as they don’t mind a little of the gilding wearing off the idol.

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Charlie Chaplin: A Brief Life by Peter Ackroyd is published by Doubleday on October 28.

Captain America Blogathon

Wow…this is such an awesome blogathon idea. The trouble is limiting it to just 10 movies. It looks like the deadline for the lists is March 31. Poor Cap…that’s a lot of movies.

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This isn’t the first blogathon I have organised, however it has been thrown together very quickly. I have just see an extended trailer for Captain America: The Winter Soldier. In it we see Steve Rogers make a note in a pocket note book. A list of things he missed out on in the time he was frozen that people have recommended he should catch up on. Towards the bottom of the list there are two movies Rocky and Rocky II. This got me thinking, what ten movies would you recommend a person who  had been frozen between 1943 and 2011.

 Captain America Blogathon

The make-up of the list is up to you. It could be an historical record of what he missed, something to cheer him up/take his mind of things or just your favourite movies from the period.

The movie is released at the end of the month in the…

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31 Days of Oscar: The Movies – Could more be more?

Our 31 Days of Oscar blogathon wraps up with Week 5 posts — The Movies. I’ve been thinking about the Best Picture category a lot lately, since I read Movies Silently’s Week 2 post, The Silent Oscars, in which she highlighted Academy Award categories that were lost with the advent of sound films. Near the beginning of her very informative post, she writes:

The first Academy Awards had several categories that were never repeated. The best picture award was divided in two, best production (Wings) and most artistic (Sunrise). Frankly, I think dividing best picture into art film and crowd-pleaser would be an excellent idea today but what do I know? The best director category was likewise divided into best dramatic director (Frank Borzage) and best comedic director (Lewis Milestone).

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Two winners, both alike in dignity…WINGS and SUNRISE

Such interesting ideas. What would two Best Picture and two Best Director categories look like?

Having 20 different nominated films might get complicated, so it’s quite possible the Academy would return to limiting the Best Picture categories to five each. Also there would probably be some films that get nominated for both Best Production and Most Artistic. For instance, I think last year’s Best Picture, Argo, qualified for both. Would it have gotten lost between plausible Best Production nominees Django Unchained and Silver Linings Playbook and Most Artistic shoo-in Beasts of the Southern Wild?

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Among the nominees for Best Production…SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK and…21 JUMP STREET?

On the other hand, separating directors into Best Dramatic and Best Comedic categories would probably have helped Argo director Ben Affleck to get nominated the same year (that he wasn’t is still a staggering snub in my book), though I think Ang Lee still would have won. My money would have been on Playbook director David O. Russell in the Comedic category, would he have gotten into the dramatic category as well? Who else would have gotten nominated? Phil Lord and Chris Miller for 21 Jump Street possibly? It’s hilarious. Seth McFarlane for Ted? Jay Roach for The Campaign? Jason Moore for Pitch Perfect? Would these films then get nominated in a Best Production category? Or would those nominations go to effects-heavier movies?

I’m not sure, but I do know that comedy has long gotten short shrift from Oscar. And I also know the Academy has tried all sorts of tactics to increase viewership. Designating an actual category just for comedy direction places these films — and possibly their fans — at the core of the Academy Awards. Would it also alienate the base (if there is such a thing)? And, with the differentiation between drama and comedy in other categories, would it then be necessary to split up the acting and craft categories as well? The mind boggles…but it’s fun to think about.

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This post is part of the second annual 31 Days of Oscar blogathon hosted by Paula’s Cinema Club, Outspoken and Freckled, and Once Upon a Screen. For more posts featuring Oscar snubs, visit the megapost at Outspoken and Freckled, and stay tuned for more Oscar-related posts throughout the month. Our blogathon gets its inspiration from Turner Classic Movies’ 31 Days of Oscar, “where every movie shown is an Oscar winner or nominee.”

31 Days of Oscar: Week 3 — ACTING

We have now arrived at week 3 of the 31 Days of Oscar blogathon, which coincides with Turner Classic Movies’ month-long celebration of the very best in cinema. Co-hosted by me (@Paula_Guthat), Aurora (@CitizenScreen) of Once Upon A Screen, and Kellee (@IrishJayhawk66) of Outspoken & Freckled, the third installment of our Second Annual Oscar extravaganza addresses Acting, arguably the most remembered aspect of any film, particularly Academy Award contenders.

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For various reasons, including a successful run of Blue Jasmine at Cinema Detroit, I’ve been thinking more about the Best Actress category this year than any other. Oscar front-runner Cate Blanchett is simply genius in the title role. Many people have mentioned to us that her acting (and to a lesser extent, that of the rest of the cast) are the reason they like or even love this unexpectedly downbeat movie. (Sally Hawkins is, of course, excellent. But Andrew Dice Clay? Really? Really. He’s actually good in it.) And I have agree, and also add that I think this is because Blanchett makes Jasmine seem like a real — albeit self-absorbed and delusional — person. I’m pretty sure Blanchett will win, she just earned a BAFTA, but the other contenders are Amy Adams, Sandra Bullock, Judi Dench and Meryl Streep, so I guess it’s not a done deal. Be that as it may, I believe that Blanchett, assisted by the rest of Jasmine‘s acting troupe, is what kept people coming into the theater seven months after the film’s premiere.

And now, without further ado, here are this week’s posts:

Pam at Once Upon A Screen — The Golden Age of Hollywood Revisited: Henry Fonda Finally Wins An Oscar

The Gal Herself — In Praise of Practical Magic: Julie Andrews

Emily of The Vintage Cameo — Actors Playing Actors

Margaret of The Great Katharine Hepburn — Katharine Hepburn’s One and Only Academy Awards Appearance

Rich of Wide Screen World — Oscar Trading Cards: Actor Assortment

Karen of Shadows and Satin — Van Heflin in Johnny Eager (1941)

ImagineMDD — Hume Cronyn: One Life, a Boatload of Characters

Lê of Crítica Retrô — Best Oscar Acceptance Speeches

Kelly of …On Popcorn and Movies — The Origins of Smolder…Gary Cooper and a little bit about Pitt

Ivan of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear — Stuart Whitman in The Mark (1961)

Shane of Classic Film Haven — The Amazing Stories of Harold Russell and Haing S. Ngor

Aurora of Once Upon A Screen — Spencer Tracy: Oscar and the Actor’s Actor


More of the Second Annual 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon:

Week 1 – SNUBS posts are here.
Week 2 – Music, Costumes, Cinematography, Writing, etc. posts are here.
Week 4 – The Directors posts are here.

Call for posts – 31 Days of Oscar

I accept this very gratefully for keeping my mouth shut for once, I think I’ll do it again.
—Jane Wyman

There’s been a lot of criticism over the years over this award, and some of that criticism has been warranted. But whether it’s warranted or not, I think it’s one hell of an honor, and I thank you.
—Jack Lemmon

I’ll tell you this about the Oscars – they’re real.
—William H. Macy

And so is this blogathon!

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For the second year in a row Kellee (@IrishJayHawk66) of Outspoken and Freckled, Paula (@Paula_Guthat) of Paula’s Cinema Club and Aurora (@CitizenScreen) of Once Upon a Screen bring you a mammoth blogathon event which just happens to coincide with Turner Classic Movies’ 31 Days of Oscar.

This promises to be another February filled with fabulous tales and screen wonders – many of the stories, players and films featured on TCM all month long. In fact, the network is kicking things off this year in spectacular style on February 1st by featuring all of the Best Picture nominees from Hollywood’s “Golden Year” 1939, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary! In addition, that night, TCM premieres a new original documentary, And the Oscar Goes To….

So, in short, if you can’t take the entire month of February off work, or send your kids to your relatives, then be sure to clear your DVRs, and join the blogathon.

We are not limiting this event to classic film fare though — posts on more recent Oscar-winning or Oscar-worthy filmmaking are very welcome. We want to see and hear it all from the golden man’s more than eighty-five year history, including the 2014 nominees. Share stories about the films and players, tell us which and who deserved the nod and were ignored, or rhapsodize about which films inspire you with their music or lighting.

We are doing things a little different this year by focusing on a different Oscars topic each week.
For your consideration:

WEEK 1 – the weekend of February 1-2 – Oscar Snubs!  Let the venting kick things off!

WEEK 2 – the weekend of February 8-9 – Music, Costumes, Cinematography, Writing, etc.  You name it. If it’s not Best Acting, Direction, or Picture, it’s in!

WEEK 3 – the weekend of February 15-16 – Actors!  Lead or supporting, take center stage.

Week 4 – the weekend of February 22-23 – The Directors!  

Week 5 – the weekend of February 28-March 1 – THE MOVIES!  

We are taking turns hosting, but you can submit topics by leaving comments on any of our blogs, via twitter, or by email.  We ask that you please include the following:

  • Title and link to your blog
  • Your email address (use [at] instead of @ if leaving a blog comment)
  • Topic

It would also be great if you can include any of the event banners included above or below in this post on your blog to help us promote the event.

SO – write to your heart’s desire!  Write one post or several on each topic.  But write!  And join us, won’t you? Hollywood’s big night is only once a year.

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Happy birthday, Stanley Tucci

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I meant to write about “The Tooch” for the What A Character! blogathon but with everything going on, it got away from me. My only thoughts were “he’s adorable” and “what a chameleon of a great actor.” Each of his characterizations is different and each is perfect in its details, becoming an essential part of whatever film in which he’s working his magic. PS: He turns 53 today. Looking good Tooch.

What A Character! 2013 Update

In just about a month’s time, we’ll be singing the praises of those amazing actors and actresses who appear in the periphery of our beloved classic films and yet have made indelible marks on our memories. For the second year in a row, we’re putting them front and center. Hosted by Kellee (@IrishJayhawk66) of Outspoken & Freckled, me (@Paula_Guthat) of this-here blog, and Aurora (@CitizenScreen) of Once Upon a Screen…it’s the WHAT A CHARACTER! blogathon 2013!

  • Can you count how many scenes Walter Brennan stole from the likes of Duke Wayne or Humphrey Bogart?
  • Or the number stolen by Beulah Bondi as she portrayed lovable, meddling moms?
  • Would Gone with the Wind be as memorable without the talents of Hattie McDaniel or Harry Davenport?

To those and the many others whose work we admire we dedicate WHAT A CHARACTER!

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If you’re interested in participating, and we certainly hope you are, please adhere to the following:

  • Let one of the hosts know which character actor is your choice via email [mine is paula.guthat[at]gmail.com], contact form [at the end of this post] or blog comment [below].
  • Although we’re inclined to limit these to those considered “traditional” classic actors – or before 1970 just to choose a point of reference – if you have an actor in mind after that time, that’s fine. (My contemporary pick? Stanley Tucci.)
  • Please include your twitter or FB tag, email address and blog name & URL.
  • If you do not have a blog, one will be provided for you. By that I mean, I will gladly publish your post for you. Leave me a comment or send me an email.
  • Publish the post for either November 9, 10 or 11. Let us know if you have a date preference, otherwise we’ll split publicizing duties equally among the three days.
  • Please post one of the blogathon graphics on your blog to help us publicize the event.
  • Include the graphic and link to one of the host sites in your WHAT A CHARACTER! post.
  • If possible, please send any of the hosts the direct link to your WHAT A CHARACTER! post by the day before your due date. Otherwise we’ll link to your site’s home page.

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There are many great characters worthy of attention. Won’t you join these stalwart bloggers in honoring these familiar favorites? (Don’t worry if your pick has already been chosen, you can still write about her/him.) List in alpha order according to subject’s first name.

Kay Movie Star Makeover Agnes Moorehead
Kerry Hosted on Paula’s Cinema Club Bruce Dern
Barry Cinematic Catharsis Dick Miller
The “semi” Daily Maine Edna May Oliver
Aubyn The Girl with the White Parasol Edward Arnold
Kristen Sales on Film Elisha Cook, Jr.
Jenni Portraits by Jenni Eric Blore
Ruth Silver Screenings Ernest Borgnine in Marty
Paula Paula’s Cinema Club Eugene Pallette
Christy Christy’s Inkwells Florence Bates
Paula Paula’s Cinema Club Frank McHugh
Marlee Picture Spoilers Gail Patrick
Cindy Bruchman Cindy Bruchman George Sanders
Le Critica Retro Hank Worden
Aurora Once Upon a Screen Harry Davenport
Kellee Outspoken & Freckled Hattie McDaniel
Cliff Immortal Ephemera Hugh Herbert
Kristina Speakeasy Irving Bacon
Pam on Once Upon a Screen Jane Darwell
Monstergirl The Last Drive-In Jeanette Nolan
Maegan Hosted on Once Upon a Screen Jesse Royce Landis
Della Street The 5 AM Show Jessie Ralph
Bogart Fan Bogie Film Blog Joe Sawyer
Moira The Skeins John Hoyt
Patricia Caftan Woman Joyce Grenfell
I Love Terrible Movies Mary MacLaren
Jessica Comet Over Hollywood Nat Pendleton
Moira The Skeins Pert Kelton
Matt TVs Fault Peter Lorre
Stacia She Blogged by Night Regis Toomey
Annmarie Classic Movie Hub Roscoe Karns
Terry A Shroud of Thoughts Sheldon Leonard
Dorian Tales of the Easily Distracted Sam Levene
Paula Paula’s Cinema Club Stanley Tucci
Jill Sittin’ On a Backyard Fence Sterling Holloway
Chris Family Friendly Reviews Thelma Ritter
Joel Joel’s Classic Film Passion Thomas Mitchell
Furious Cinema Timothy Carey
FlickChick Tony Randall
Fritzi Movies, Silently Tully Marshall
Kaci Hepburnia Una Merkel
John The Droid You’re Looking For TBD
Diana & Constance Silver Scenes TBD
Rich Wide Screen World TBD

HAVE FUN and thank you for spreading the word! HAPPY BLOGGING!

Reckless Review: LOW AND CLEAR (2012)

Early in the 2012 documentary Low and Clear, one of the two main characters, J.T. Van Zandt, remarks, “the biggest mistake about fishing is that it’s about catching fish.” It would have been easy for the filmmakers to make this mistake themselves…fortunately they do not. Though it’s ostensibly about a fly fishing trip taken by J.T. and his friend Alex “Xenie” Hall, Low and Clear doesn’t really have much to do with fly fishing. Its stunning visuals pull you into a quiet, leisurely-paced meditation on the nature of friendship…how do people become friends, can they stay friends as their lives change, and if so, how?

LOW & CLEAR Official Trailer from Finback Films on Vimeo.

J.T. and Xenie are almost completely different in personality and lifestyle. Fly fishing and love and respect for nature are the things they have in common, and they even differ in their approaches to that. Short-tempered Xenie lives to fish and arranges his life around it, while mellow J.T. has a more balanced life, with a fiancée, a job and a house. They met when J.T. was working in a fly fishing store and Xenie was the local legend. Their relationship has developed from teacher-student to one of mutual respect and fierce competition. They both at times interpret the other’s choices as a judgement on their own, and though they are important influences on each other, J.T. describes their relationship now as “combative.”

This dynamic comes to the fore on their trip. As J.T. also stated early on, when people are fishing, “personalities come out and you can’t hide it.” Xenie sticks to his tried-and-true methods and routine, obsessively photographing every fish he catches, while J.T. has decided to use the time to learn some new techniques and isn’t getting even a nibble. Xenie gloats and tries to give advice as J.T. becomes more and more frustrated yet refuses to budge. It’s clear that, like any other friends who’ve drifted apart, they’ve become separated in a million different little ways.

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There’s no fighting, gunplay, special effects, or explosions. No one gets marooned in the Canadian wilderness. It’s just two guys talking about themselves and each other, and gorgeous photography by the directors Kahlil Hudson and Tyler Hughen. The Gulf Coast of Texas (J.T.’s home), Colorado (Xenie’s territory), and British Columbia (where they take their trip) never looked better. The film’s pace is slower than audiences are used to, but if you’re patient, you’ll get some food for thought on friendship and the meaning of life, and a reminder of the breathtaking beauty of the natural world.

Low and Clear is playing in the metro Detroit area on Tuesday, July 30 as part of Gathr’s preview series at the Maple Theater. You can win free series tickets by emailing promotions@gathr.us with your name and subject line “CMB.” Good luck!

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After the series, the films will be available for Gathr’s Theatrical-On-Demand service, which allows moviegoers to request screenings of indie films at their local theater. For more information, visit the Gathr site.

What is ‘Side by Side’ All About?

St Clair Cinema Club is showing Side by Side (2012) tomorrow night (Saturday,  June 22). It’s a great look at the huge change happening in the movie industry right now, so if you like movies at all, and you’re in the Detroit area, we hope you’ll stop by Jam Handy (2900 East Grand Blvd.)

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In this short video, producer Keanu Reeves explains what the documentary SIDE BY SIDE is about. We’ll let Reeves do the talking, but the most important thing is that it’s for anyone who likes movies. SIDE BY SIDE has something for the casual moviegoer who’s curious about how movies – both film and digital – are made. And for the serious film geek, many of the best directors working today express their views on the change from film to digital – which is probably the biggest technical change in movie making since the change from silent movies to talkies.

So, come on out to JAM HANDY this Saturday at 8p.m. to see SIDE BY SIDE. We’ll have popcorn and beverages. See you then!

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Reckless Review: MAN OF STEEL (2013)

This review contains spoilers. Just about every sentence is a spoiler!

I have to admit my expectations for Man of Steel were pretty high. And it did get pretty close. If I was giving out grades, it would get a B, maybe even a B+. But an over-reliance on explosions and effects for the IMAX/3D crowd unfortunately dilute the impact of an otherwise excellent movie.

The good:

Henry Cavill as Superman and Amy Adams as Lois Lane. As I expected, Cavill expertly conveys the humility, goodness, and dry wit that work for this character. His American accent is perfect (and pretty neutral for Kansas…but this guy has worked all over the continent apparently). Let’s face it, it doesn’t hurt that he’s as handsome and almost incredibly fit as a Superman should be. Adams is convincing as a determined reporter who just can’t leave well enough alone. She isn’t sassy, just strong-willed. I liked that the character didn’t immediately go to pieces at her first sight of Superman…that’s not right for a hardboiled reporter, which is what Lois should be. These two have an easy chemistry that I’d like to have seen more of (more on that later).

In addition, I’m glad the writers found a rather clever way out of the conceit of Lois not knowing who Superman is, one that both strengthens the Lois character and furthers the plot. The idea that Superman’s identity is a secret to Lois was never believable to me — she’s a brilliant reporter and she can’t figure it out right away? Plus it’s always annoyed me that she didn’t recognize him supposedly because of his glasses, probably because I wear glasses myself. I think I basically look the same with or without them!

The casting. I think it’s excellent, from Russell Crowe and Ayelet Zurer as Clark’s birth parents, to Diane Lane and Kevin Costner as his adoptive ones, from Richard Schiff as the requisite scientist, to Christopher Meloni and the ever-reliable Harry Lennix as a military colonel and general respectively, it just works. Michael Shannon is an appropriately detestable Zod and parallel to Kal-El/Clark. And why didn’t it occur to anyone to cast Laurence Fishburne as a cranky newspaper editor before this? I really liked his take on Perry White. In addition, care was taken with the younger versions of Clark so that the actors playing the character at different ages actually look plausibly alike.

The structure of Superman’s back story. While the circumstances surrounding his birth kick the film off, much of Clark’s childhood is recounted in a series of flashbacks, which are triggered by seemingly ordinary occurrences in his life. While a couple of the people I saw this with were annoyed by it, I found it to be naturalistic and quite easy to follow.

Spot-on depiction of the severe ADD resulting from Superman’s powers. Sitting in a classroom at school, young Clark is bombarded with hundreds of stimuli, well-represented on film. Although I don’t have it nearly as bad, if you’ve ever wondered, that’s basically what it’s like.

The religious references. Superman is like Moses — a foundling, outcast from “normal” society — and he’s also like Jesus — Kal-El/Clark Kent was uniquely conceived, he is 33, he excels at turning the other cheek, and he sacrifices himself to save humanity. Also Jor-El (Crowe) becomes a computer-driven “ghost,” who believes Clark will be received as “a god.” All of this taps into elementary archetypes and helps to overcome the fact that we don’t really see enough motivation for Superman to save the people of Earth. Other than his parents, the only person who treats Clark with any shred of decency is a kid whose life he saves. So why should he bother? That’s why.

The not so good:

This is a CANDID, people. How do you mess this up?
This is a CANDID, people. How do you mess this up?

Cavill’s hair. I thought it was impossible to botch perfection but somehow they managed to goof up Henry’s look, at least part of the time. His hair style and color change from scene to scene and it became a distraction. This is very minor compared to…

Not enough interaction between the characters, and too much big multi-stage battle between Zod and Superman. The mass destruction of Metropolis goes on way too long, becoming tedious. This film has a handle on epic, particularly the flying scenes and big beautiful images, courtesy of director Zack Snyder and DP Amir Mokri. What interaction there is, worked well; I just wanted more of it. I wish there was a way to magically re-distribute some of the time spent on dismantling skyscrapers and put it into the characters’ relationships. It’s this unbalance that tips Man of Steel from excellent to pretty good.

P.S.

Ruth from Flix Chatter predicted correctly long ago that Henry Cavill would play Superman, but here’s 13 other clues…in a gallery no less 😉

Plus Henry Cavill’s career in pictures