By Marc S. Sanders

Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War masterpiece, Apocalypse Now from 1979, focuses on a madman assigned to find another madman and assassinate him.  I look at the film as a spiral into a dark, demented psychosis.  Each section of Coppola’s film appears like some variation of insanity within an environment and period of time where there was no end in sight for a war that was going out of control.

Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) is first shown in a hotel room that he has ransacked during a drunken rage, going so far as to smash his fist into a mirror.  His voiceover explains the horrifying experiences he has already endured.  Now he is at a point where killing is all he is capable of performing. He is summoned to a General’s lunch where he is assigned to seek out a highly decorated Special Forces soldier named Colonel Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando).  Kurtz has taken his squad over to Cambodia without authorization.  It is believed that he has gone insane with his will to harbor people over there into a cult that he controls while engaging in his own actions against the Vietcong.  The army needs this problem contained and Willard has been selected to terminate Kurtz.

Apocalypse Now is primarily about the journey, rather than its destination.  Willard is to be escorted by patrol boat up the Nang River to find Kurtz and complete his mission.  Along the way he will encounter a variety of scenarios and characters. 

The standout character is Lt Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall) the commander of a helicopter calvary battalion.  Willard meets up with Kilgore early on as he will provide an opening on the river for the long journey to begin.  This is the most memorable section of Coppola’s film.  Robert Duvall is truly maddening as he relishes in the destruction he commands.  Kilgore is amused to blare Wagner’s The Ride Of The Valkyries as his choppers blast the shore line where Vietnamese villagers and farmers reside.  Duvall almost seems god like during this sequence because he does not even flinch as explosions and armory are set off mere inches away from him.  He’s crazed enough to even send his troops out into the ocean to surf while the mayhem is still occurring.  When he takes off his shirt while proudly wearing his calvary hat, sunglasses and yellow scarf around his neck, he utters the famous line “I love the smell of Napalm in the morning.”  There is no hint of sarcasm in that line.  Kilgore truly means it.  The commands of war are his absolute pleasure.  The only human feeling that Kilgore shows is when his personalized surfboard turns up missing.  Otherwise, the carnage he leaves behind is a job well done.

Why do I focus on this sequence so much?  First, it is a perfect construction of filmmaking and acting combined.  Coppola’s clear daylight shots of the choppers advancing on the surf are an amazing sight to behold.  To have that much control of so many vehicles in the air so that a select number of cameras can take in the sequence amazes me.  It is feats like these that show why I love movies so much.  The moment is more enhanced with Wagner’s piece accompanying it.  This could all be appreciated as simple documentary style filmmaking.  However, when you combine the mayhem Coppola stages with the proud march of The Ride Of The Valkyries, and Duvall’s crazed glee of commanding this episode of mass destruction, you start to see a pretense.  The hypocrisy of all the elements contained in this sequence tells the story. This country and its people are being obliterated by a crazed individual arriving from the heavens above.  As the scene progresses, my mind returned to the overall plot of the film; the mission of the protagonist which is to kill a lunatic.  At this point in the picture, I have yet to meet Colonel Kurtz.  So, how much of a madman must Kurtz be when compared to a maniac like Kilgore?

Later sequences carry on the insanity theme.  A trio of Playboy playmates are brought in to entertain the troops during one of Willard’s stop overs.  Yet, the crowd of soldiers gets out of control and the entertainers are forced to flee by helicopter with some of the men grasping on to the chopper as it takes flight.  My thoughts were you must be insane to continue hanging on while it gets higher into the air.  Let go for heaven’s sake before you plummet to your death.  Nevertheless, these half naked women are the purest, most angelic thing that these boys have ever seen since being recruited into this hellish nightmare. 

Willard’s crewmen on the patrol boat seem too green with the impacts of war.  They are not as battle weary as Willard.  There’s a guy named Lance (Sam Bottoms) who seems happy go lucky to play the Rolling Stones.  There’s a chef by trade (Frederic Forrest) and a young kid who goes by the name of “Clean” (Laurence Fishburne).  Chief Phillips (Albert Hall) drives the boat.  Willard must keep his mission classified.  These men are only supposed to get him to his destination no matter how far up the river it takes them.  These soldiers are riding into the unknown, escorting a crazed fellow who knows that a positive outcome is not likely.  Coppola provides moments where the men lose control of their senses.  These boys don’t come as informed about what is right and wrong within the parameters of war.  Innocent lives are taken as the patrol boat continues its horrifying tour.  Their lives might be taken as well.  The question is what is the worse cost?  Death, or the horrors they encounter, act upon, and live with thereafter?

It’s notable to watch Frederic Forrest’s performance as he transitions into a mindset with no other option but to slaughter as he dons camouflage makeup later in the film.  Albert Hall’s performance lends some sensibility to the picture.  However, how does Chief Phillips’ receptivity measure up to the crazed obsession that Willard has for completing his assignment?  It’s all quite tragic as the film moves from one moment to the next.

As expected, the third act of the film focuses on Willard’s encounter with Kurtz.  Before all of this, we follow along as Willard reads through the extensive files of Kurtz’ history and career.  This man seems like a giant among giants and in 1979 it seems only befitting that a giant of an actor portrays the mysterious Colonel.  So, that actor had to be none other than Marlon Brando.  Oddly enough, this portion of the film is where the film starts to wear out for me.  Kurtz is insane in a quiet and dark way.  Coppola shoots much of Brando’s performance in darkness.  I’m aware of the purpose with that kind of filmmaking, but it is a long section of film to watch an actor move in and out of the light.  Brando comes off mysterious with lines of dialogue that make little sense at times.  Some allegories work as he describes Willard’s purpose as that of a clerk delivering groceries.  Yet, Kurtz seems the least crazed of all the crazies provided within Coppola’s film. 

A babbling, hippie photographic journalist (Dennis Hopper) greets Willard upon his arrival.  He’s talking in circles with envy for Kurtz, his leader, who resides within the tomb like structure along the banks of the river.  The natives also seem to heed towards Kurtz’ influence.  Willard is taken captive and tormented.  Still, when Kurtz speaks he doesn’t come off so kamikaze like the others we’ve seen before.  I can only presume there are levels to insanity.  Madness is not a well-defined ailment.  I find it ironic that Kurtz, the great soldier and decorated war hero, is deemed the greatest threat to the armed forces’ image within this conflict.  Kilgore, on the other hand, has free reign to slaughter helpless women, children, and farming communities all in the name of victory while commanding his underlings to surf along the coastline. 

What is so mystifying about Apocalypse Now is how thematic the movie seems to be.  It follows this common pattern demonstrating how crazed the effects of war can have on people.  The killing and bloodshed are the most apparent of course.  However, the military declares early on that there is a loose cannon within their ranks that must be contained.  The only option is to kill this man, who has done his bidding for the progress of its army for so long.  This man, Colonel Kurtz, has sacrificed promotions in ranking and a return to a quiet life with his wife and children, so that he can continue with carrying out the agendas administered by his government.  Yet somehow, he crosses a border, and he no longer kills the way his superiors want him to, and now he must be terminated.  The hypocrisy is to send a madman to do a madman’s bidding, as if that will preserve some sort of sanity within this out-of-control conflict.

I could not get away from that impression during the whole three-hour running time of the film.  Practically every caption, scene, expression, or scenario is rooted in madness.  Francis Ford Coppola wrote the script with John Milius and it’s been said that much of the filmmaking was done on the fly.  Still, with Coppola’s direction along with a strong cast, particularly from the quietly, reserved Martin Sheen, the message comes through clearly.  War begins with a difference in politics and a need for further control.  Pawns are the collateral damage used at will to settle the argument.  Rules of engagement may appear formally on paper.  However, is anyone with a gun in his hand or facing the end of a loaded barrel going to pause and consider what’s just and appropriate before taking action? 

Apocalypse Now speaks to an end of days where the soldiers sent to do the bidding of others respond by doing what they ask of themselves.  Therefore, I’ll end this piece on a vague note. 

There is no organized effort when it comes to war.

NOTE: This article is based on my viewing of Coppola’s third iteration of his film, entitled Apocalypse Now: The Final Cut.


By Marc S. Sanders

Remember that CW TV show called Felicity?  I’ve never seen an episode, but I remember the advertisements.  Beautiful, former child actor, Keri Russell with the golden, curly locks of love, was on her way to college.  Every commercial had that crisp, home like comfort feel voiceover.  It left me with an impression that this was a corny, yet sweeping exploration of coming of age while at college, and gaining independence.  The show came from JJ Abrams.  Abrams is a good director and writer.  He’s now one of the biggest producers in Hollywood.  Back in the early 2000s however, he wanted to nurture his characters.  Protect them.  Make them feel warm and content.  After Felicity, he went on to develop a spy thriller series called Alias with Jennifer Garner.  She was a college student with a lovable roommate by day and was super spy by night, or whenever the moment called for it.  Abrams went on to blending his coziness with that of stunts and explosions that modernized a series like, say…Mission: Impossible.  Naturally, when Tom Cruise recruited him for the third film of the high-octane franchise, we got the “Felicity Finish” applied.  Ethan Hunt is sweet and kind, and he’s ready for married life.  How precious!

Don’t get me wrong.  Mission: Impossible III is likely what kept the still running blockbuster movie series going.  Following a style over substance lackluster entry before, from action director John Woo, this third entry went in a completely different direction.  Ethan Hunt hugs a soon to be sister-in-law. Ethan Hunt cries.  Ethan Hunt has feelings.  Ethan Hunt has to rescue who he regards as his “kid sister,” Felicity…I mean adorable Keri Russell from being held hostage.  Ethan Hunt belongs on the cover of a Hallmark card with actress Michelle Monaghan.

I imagine JJ Abrams is not fond of the early James Bond movies.  I’d make a case that he watches them and wishes that someone, anyone would just give 007 a warm and sincere hug after he saves the world, and hold him close.  Superspies have emotions too, ya know?

The story of this third M:I chapter focuses on the pursuit of a MacGuffin known as the rabbit’s foot.  A powerful weapons dealer named Owen Davian (a brutally frightening Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is working to get a hold of it.  Following a first act rescue mission that Ethan and his IMF team (Ving Rhames, Maggie Q, Jonathan Rhys Meyers) engage in, the main hero finds reason to capture Davian and intercept the mysterious rabbit’s foot.  Complications get in the way because Ethan has fallen in love with an adorably beautiful doctor named Julia (Monaghan), who is unaware of her fiancé’s exploits.   

The action is superb in Abrams cinematic directorial debut.  Once it gets started after a sweet engagement party scene, it does not let up.  Everything is well edited and choreographed. An essential part of a Mission: Impossible movie.  An unexpected attack on a bridge crossing is spectacular.  The covert tactics are fun to watch as well.  When Ethan and team secretly invade The Vatican, the step-by-step maneuvers are carried out with gleeful ease.

There are twists and double crosses at play as well that you are not even thinking about looking for.  Frankly, they work more effectively here than they did in the original M:I film directed by Brian DePalma.  When the traitor is revealed to deliver a line like “It’s complicated,” it is not unreasonable to gasp.

Hoffman still remains the best of the villains in Cruise’s action franchise.  Maybe that’s by Abrams’ design because this is probably the most personal of all the films to date.  Phillip Seymour Hoffman is the guy who will be apprehended and braced to a railing on an airplane by the IMF team, and yet will still hold the upper hand.  A question like “Do you have a wife or a girlfriend?” has a much more sinister context when uttered by Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

I do recall when I first saw the film that the ending is not original.  It’s an opportunity for Tom Cruise to do another running scene, but it was first used in an episode of Alias where an operative is remotely giving directions to the hero while talking on a cell phone.  Clever the first time.  The second time seeing it, I was just calling it out.  So, Abrams needs to stretch his imagination a little.  No matter.  The pulse of the adventure races at high speed.

Mission: Impossible III might be unabashedly hokey and corny.  Everyone looks like they belong in a JC Penney commercial at Christmas time, or on a CW TV show like Felicity. However, it won’t deny you of what you are looking for which are big stunts in the sky and on the ground, along with the cool gadgets and those signature pull away masks that made the original series so memorable. 

I still realize that by the time film series reached this chapter, the franchise still belonged exclusively to Tom Cruise occupying every frame.  Once again, his team of IMF agents really don’t matter or carry any substance except to wear clothes.  At least this time, Tom Cruise cries over someone else.  So, he’s not as self-involved as the last couple of times, or even the last couple of dozen movies.  That’s a nice change of pace. 


By Marc S. Sanders

In a game of chess, if your queen is taken, it might mean a permanent loss of what was thought to be a god given talent. Seven year old Joshua Waitzkin does not realize that, and thus it allowed him to become the greatest chess champion in the country.

Josh (Max Pomeranc) is not a chess player. Josh is a boy who plays chess, as well as baseball. He also builds Legos, plays Clue and does just about anything else including fishing with his dad. He knows this about himself. The problem is the adults in his life only see chess, and nothing else. Writer/Director Steve Zaillian assembles a film that turns the world’s most historic board game into a means of recognizing self-worth and the limits of talent with its correlation to identity.

Josh gains influence from a cutthroat formal chess instructor named Bruce (Ben Kingsley) who doesn’t just teach chess but also offers guidance in manners of contempt and dislike for your opponent. It helps that he recognizes Josh’s talent but is Bruce coaching with the best intentions?

Contrary to Bruce is a city park speed player named Vinnie (Laurence Fishburne) who reminds Josh to always play on offense. Play the board, not the opponent. Josh’s father (Joe Mantegna) only sees victory through beautiful trophies. When Josh loses interest in champion accomplishment, his father only sees nothing but failure. His mother (Joan Allen) sees the boy losing his boyhood.

These are all good people and necessary for Josh. The conflict lies in the clash of their different ideals. I love that. There isn’t a villain here. There’s a debate.

Zaillain devotes time to footage of renowned champion Bobby Fischer who eventually went into seclusion probably due to the lack of any worthy challenger beyond himself. The worry of the film lies in whether Josh will end up with the same sad fate of Fischer. Everyone is on the hunt for the next Bobby Fischer. Does everyone want to be the cruel, cold and isolated Bobby Fischer, though; a man with talent yet also hates his talent?

Zallian films very effectively in a majority of close ups, hardly showing the surroundings of the settings. He wants his camera to maintain a tunnel vision to only allow Josh, and those that discover and observe him, per se, to see what’s directly in front of him. Nothing else. Nothing but the chess pieces on a board and how many moves until check mate arrives are all that matters.

The film edits beautifully in sound as the speed play pounds the chess pieces in an aggressive music accompaniment. Pieces are KNOCKED onto the board, and when a queen is taken it is SLAMMED on to the table. A person has ultimately been disabled and weakened. When check mate eventually comes, the king piece weakly drops over.

Josh is not proud of his ability to conquer. He’s proud of his ability to play.


By Marc S. Sanders

Miguel and I went to see the The Matrix Resurrections last night and honestly, when I woke up this morning, I had forgotten I’d even seen it.  That’s because, other than the original Matrix film, the subsequent chapters are about as special as cheap food court Chinese food.  When you get home from the mall, you recall what you may have window shopped, but you never reflect on what you had for lunch; well maybe your gut does later on, and that’s certainly not doing you any favors. 

When The Wachowskis introduced the world to The Matrix way back in 1999, it was one of the biggest surprises in films.  No one saw its uniqueness coming.  Everyone was focused on the over hyped resurgence of Star Wars, or a kid who desecrated a pie, or a hand held video film that was seemingly terrorizing audiences.  Yet The Matrix arguably may have had the best longevity that year.  It seemed like a combo sci fi/super hero picture with the players looking ultra-cool in designer sunglasses and leather night club outfits.  Guns and jiu jitsu flew off the screen, but it was done in a new visual kind of way.  Bruce Lee would have likely been a part of this picture had he been alive.  When someone took a kick to the face, it was edited super cool looking sloooooowwww motion.  Bullet time became a thing with projectiles warping through the space between characters and these players, especially Keanu Reeves as the messianic Neo and Carrie Anne Moss as Trinity, would bend and twist and twirl acrobatically (again in slow motion style) to dodge machine gun fire and endless shrapnel.  The look of the film remains absolutely superb.  Nothing (other than maybe the film’s sequels) has duplicated what was accomplished here. 

As well, the original Matrix stands apart from the other three because it actually told a story and developed its protagonist and his mentor (Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus) into fleshed out characters.  It also went so far as to describe what the Matrix is, and what the world outside of that realm represents.  Like all humans, Neo, also known as Thomas Anderson, was actually under the control of a machine-like community designed to sustain a world known as the Matrix, and…well…that’s just bad!  There was solid storytelling here with setting and character development that was later accompanied by well-choregraphed action and pulse pounding club music.  When the film ended, audiences couldn’t wait for more and Warner Bros happily greenlit two more films that were shot back-to-back.  Only the train derailed from there.

Gearing up for the 2021 installment, directed by Lana Wachowski, I watched the first three films again.  Other than the first film, I had forgotten much of what occurred in the 2nd (The Matrix Reloaded) and 3rd (The Matrix Revolutions) pictures.  I realize now that I only forgot what really wasn’t there.  Substance!  Of the two films, Reloaded is likely better, thanks especially to an outstanding highway car chase involving sci fi effects of the characters bouncing off of big rig trucks, motorcycles and car roofs.  A pair of characters dressed in evil white leather with dreadlocks morph in and out of the vehicles and concrete streets as well.  The scene comes late in the film and only wakes you up from the meandering ahead of it.  Truly, it’s hard to comprehend what the hell is being explained in this second film.  The Wachowskis almost would prefer you be impressed with the monosyllabic vocabulary that’s exchanged with each character.  Dialogue doesn’t advance the story any further from where the first film left off.  All that I gathered was our band of rebels who successfully broke free from the slave-controlled Matrix are regrouping at the promised land of Zion, and the machines (squid like metal robots with countless red light bulbs) are advancing for an attack.  Morpheus, Trinity and Neo take it upon themselves to reenter the Matrix (because they look so much cooler there) and do who knows what.  Near the end of the film, Neo walks down a long hallway, opens a number of doorways and encounters the one supposedly responsible for the Matrix, an older gentleman known as The Architect.  This moment was intended to be a highlight of the film and yet it was anything but.  This architect spews out word diarrhea at an alarming rate that only clouds your mind further and further.  The guy has a great radio voice and has an antithetic appearance against the heroic looking Neo, but what in the hell are we supposed to do with any of this?  What’s the point?

On to Revolutions which begins exactly where Reloaded left off.  This is a picture that could have had a running time of thirty minutes at best.  The robots are finally attacking Zion.  One character who seems like he should be important or necessary to the Matrix storyline saddles up in a robot suit equipped with massive machine guns and The Wachowskis make the poor choice of feeding their audience a good seven or eight minutes of this guy spraying endless amounts of bullets in an upwards direction towards the infinite swarm of octopi robotic armies.  His guns never run out of ammo.  He just bellows as he continues to fire.  Where’s the story here?  Where’s the innovation that the first film offered?  Also, what goes up, must come down.  Shouldn’t some of that ammunition have dropped down in a hail storm eventually?  Reader, if I have to ask that last question then you know there’s not much to pay attention to in this film.

The wisest character of the Matrix films, Morpheus, is given very little to say or do in either film.  Fishburne stands in the background and let’s everything happen around him.  He’s not utilized to explain anything like he was in the first picture.  His skill for teaching the audience has been completely diminished.  Whatever he had to offer was exhausted following the first picture.  With Revolutions, especially, the filmmakers rely on B characters that we’ve never really gotten a chance to know or remember or adore like Yoda or Jabba or even Boba Fett in the films that followed the original Star Wars. In fact, Revolutions seems more concerned with its extras than any other film I can recall.  So much so that when a major character from the first film has a death scene, you hardly care for the loss.  There wasn’t much to expound on the character after the original film.  Revolutions only relies on the war nature of the human armies against the monochrome metallic squid race.  Beyond shooting at one another, where’s the conflict?  Ms. Pac Man and Frogger have more depth than any of this.

That’s the problem with these films.  A discovery was made with the 1999 installment and the filmmakers opted to capitalize on the effects and not the challenge of story. 

Furthermore, and this goes back to the original film when I first saw it in theatres, I was always of the mindset that I’d rather live in the Matrix.  After all that Morpheus has revealed to me, the Matrix still seems like the better place to reside.  The real world consists of living on a dirty, dreary ship and eating slop for food while wearing torn sweaters and having electrical plug orifices running down my spine.  Who wants that?  A Judas character from the first film turns on his crew by telling the evil Agent Smith that he will bring them Neo as long as in return he doesn’t know that he’s under the control of the Matrix and he can savor the taste of a juicy steak again.  Now I’m with this guy.  Aren’t The Wachowskis as well, though?  More footage and highlights take place in the computer mainframe of the Matrix than outside of it.  Thereby, more cool looking action sequences can happen and the cast appears more glamourized.  The films want us to fear the horrors of the Matrix on the humans by showing them plugged into wires while drowning in a pod like puddle of KY jelly embryonic ectoplasm.  You know what?  What I don’t know won’t kill me.  So, leave me be.  Perhaps the argument would have been more convincing had the environments been reversed.  Put the rebels as slave dilemma in the real-world areas and the utopian setting within the Matrix.  Then I might buy the problem here.

The newest film, Resurrections, is nothing special and nothing new.  It’s rather boring actually.  Revolutions was boring too.  It only kept me awake because it was two hours of headache inducing noise.  With the new 2021 film, apparently a new Matrix has been developed and thus a new Neo and Trinity have been conceived.  The antagonist is represented by Neil Patrick Harris and that’s about it.  Miguel pondered much, following the picture as to what was going on.  That’s not a good sign for a popcorn action flick, and it’s consistent with what was done with the 2nd and 3rd films.  What the hell is anyone talking about. Once again, dialogue moves to a beat of answering questions with questions. Even the allies speak to one another that way, and if it is not a question, then it is a cliché of some sort.  Don’t these people want to help one another?  If so, then speak to each other like your four years old and get to the point.  The action scenes drone on and on.  A goal of the picture is to keep Neo from finding Trinity because if they do, then the Matrix crashes.  Okay.  That’s simple enough.  Yet (spoiler alert), when they do find each other, somehow this new Matrix continues on.  Huh??????  The movie just betrayed me, and I don’t like that. 

Miguel attempted to conjure up the idea that Lana Wachowski was trying to demonstrate her transition from a man to a woman and this new picture was a representation of that.  Could that be true?  Maybe, but it never occurs to me while I’m watching the picture.  Am I watching The Matrix Resurrections because it’s the newest Wachowski film?  No.  This isn’t a Quentin Tarantino or Christopher Nolan piece.  This is leather and gunfire and sunglasses and noise, all depicted in a green DOS computer hue lens.

The Matrix was always worthy of a sequel; a subsequent follow up that explored imagination and perhaps more background.  What has Neo not yet uncovered.  Yet, the series as a whole continues to deny those opportunities and simply settles for cool looking visuals that get overly exhausted and tired.  No new skills are featured with each passing film.  Over the course of the series, the big bang, so to speak, of the first Matrix never reveals itself.  Instead, we are mind controlled viewers relegated to depend on overlong dialogue with no point and no where left to explore.  We are simply gifted with Neo punching Agent Smith and/or infinite duplicates of Agent Smith with no one getting weakened or wounded or defeated.  Look no further than an early fight scene in Reloaded.  The scene goes on forever.  The editing is amazing.  So is the choreography but after four minutes of this, it’s time to show some progress.  The Wachowskis limit their imagination to just having Neo fly away.  Scenes like this only allow me ample time to exit the theatre for a bathroom break and return having not lost out on any storytelling.  My friends, you can find plenty of bathroom breaks in this series of films.

The Matrix Reloaded, The Matrix Revolutions, and The Matrix Resurrections should never have been made.  Producer Joel Silver and Warner Bros would argue otherwise though.  Their wallets continue to get fatter, but at the cost of controlling moviegoers’ appetite for something more when all they really got was dry rice and overcooked orange chicken from the food court.


By Marc S. Sanders

The first time I saw Zack Snyder’s Man Of Steel, I was disappointed.  Very disappointed.  It was only after a second viewing about a year later that I realized I was simply biased and unfair with my perception of the film.  I grew up with the Richards’, Donner and Lester, films that featured Christopher Reeve in the role of Superman/Clark Kent.  Nothing could violate what was done in those films from the ’70s and ’80s. 

My impression of Man Of Steel now is that it is a marvelous film.  It’s an exploration of a stranger in a strange land questioning how to adapt to a living environment that he is not from, nor where anyone around him is genetically built like him either.  Henry Cavill fills the role of the title character.  What’s especially important is that he is not attempting to do what Reeve memorably did before him.  Actually, David S Goyer’s script really doesn’t allow for the hijinks of the prior films.  Clark Kent is not portrayed as a goofy and lovable klutz this time around.  Instead, the boy from Smallville, Kansas is challenged to limit his abilities at the behest of his Earthling father, Jonathan (Kevin Costner).  It’s dangerous for Clark to show all that he is capable of from his super strength to his heat vision.  Clark’s Earth mother, Martha (Diane Lane), is more protective of her son.  A really powerful scene occurs when young Clark is in the classroom and he has a bout with sensory overload of super hearing and super x-ray vision.  He can’t get the encompassing sounds and sights out of his head.  One of many CGI effects in the film come with Snyder showing the skeletal insides of Clark’s classmates and teachers.  It’s frightening; even to an innocent alien boy from another world.  This is good conflict.  Does the world need Clark Kent?  Would Clark Kent be better off someplace else?  Can he manage to live with daily life drowning out his sensibilities?

Another dilemma opens the film on Clark’s home planet of Krypton where he was born with the name Kal-el.  His father, Jor-el (Russell Crowe) has insisted to the governing body that the planet is expected to self destruct soon, and civilization needs to be relocated to another planet.  The politicians refuse to accept his theory.  Jor-el’s friend, the military leader General Zod (Michael Shannon) sides with his opinion.  Though his approach is violent insurrection of the Kryptonians.  Zod is punished for his crimes and sentenced to an eternal prison known as The Phantom Zone before baby Kal-el is shipped away, and the planet implodes with all its inhabitants.

Following this opening, Snyder cuts his film with flashbacks and forwards showing Clark in various different roles as either a fishing boat crewman or a bartender trying his best to remain undercover even when the temptation for use of his powers repeatedly shows itself.  Clark reflects on moments from his childhood when he and his Earth parents questioned how to present himself.  

Superman’s known love interest eventually shows herself, Pulitzer Prize winning reporter for the Daily Planet, Lois Lane (Amy Adams).  She’s following up on an alien ship that has been discovered in the arctic after 20,000 years.  Clark and Lois connect at this moment.  Of all the Superman angles that are familiar to so many of us, this is where Goyer and Snyder perhaps do not focus enough.  Man Of Steel is a satisfyingly long film, but there’s a lot of material and drawn out action to cover as well.  So the Lois and Clark relationship is somewhat sacrificed and not as nuanced as we have experienced in other iterations.

Zod arrives on Earth requesting that Kal-el reveal himself along with the intent to destructively turn Earth into a new Krypton at the sacrifice of the planet’s human population.  Naturally, a city wide battle will ensue. and lemme tell you reader you wanna talk about destroying the village just to save it….well…that’s what happens here.  When New York got destroyed in Marvel’s The Avengers or Ghostbusters, those pictures looked like spilled milk compared to what Superman and Zod do here.

Man Of Steel is the best film of the new Warner Bros/DC universe.  It might be Zack Snyder’s best film as well.  The assembly of the picture is masterful.  Hans Zimmer’s score has these great build ups as Clark discovers more of his capabilities.  It especially lends to when the character dons the cape and costume for the first time ready to leap in the sky and fly.  Snyder shows the efforts needed for Superman to carry out this talent.  The flying doesn’t come easy.  It looks like work on the super hero.  Zimmer’s score starts out quiet and then advances to these powerful notes as Superman soars higher and higher.  The boy from Kansas is making himself into something greater that he has no familiarity with.

Michael Shannon plays another of many kinds of villains and antagonists on his resume.  I’m not sick of this guy’s antics yet.  It’s time he become a James Bond villain.  He plays Zod with an uncompromising determination and disregard for anything else but to rule.  It’s all very sci fi like but I love how unforgiving he is with the role.  Much less Shakespearean than when Terrance Stamp played the part so well with Reeve as the hero.  Shannon is more direct and bloodthirsty.  Michael Shannon just knows how to be scary on film. This kind of personality would work great in a silly comedy from the Farrelly brothers as well.

Amy Adams is fine as Lois, but there’s not much here to work with honestly.  More details of her relationship with Superman come through in later films.  However, this story development soured me on my initial viewing.  The iconic irony of Superman pathos is that as sharp a reporter as Lois Lane is, she can not realize that the guy wearing the glasses who is working right next to her is actually Clark Kent?!?!?! Readers and viewers were always thankfully in on the joke.  On follow up viewings of Man Of Steel, I understand that Goyer and Snyder were never aiming for irony.  Lois knows who Clark really is from the get go. What was once an unforgivable departure for me, no longer is a concern.  There are deeper angles to question in Man Of Steel, like a purpose to others and the freedom to force a change because it can be done.

Snyder and Goyer broach on the well known Christ allegory with Superman.  The film takes place in Clark’s thirty third Earth year.  Jor-el is slain with with a stabbing to his rib.  There’s also the crucifixion  pose on a number of occasions.  I must admit, as a Jew raised conservatively with just the Old Testament, I am not very educated on the texts of Jesus Christ.  However, the basics are explored in Man Of Steel.  Is Superman a savior?  Snyder wisely even has Clark visit with his Smallville priest to question his obligations to Earth and to Zod’s calling, with window artwork of Christ in the background.  

One vice I have with Snyder’s picture is the shameless plugging.  How overt must signage from Sears, U-Haul, 7-Eleven and IHop be?  Granted, all of these summer blockbuster films have the inserts of brand labels going all the way back to the original Superman films.  Here though, the corporate advertising is a true eyesore.  Superman being thrown into the dining area of an IHop is not as memorably funny as when Zod’s underling, Non, crashed into New York’s famed Coca-Cola sign back in 1981.

The seemingly endless battle consuming about forty five minutes of the third act of the film are over the top outrageous.  I might normally be saying I’ve seen enough while casualties are never considered as buildings literally topple over into mushroom clouds of concrete dust.  Still, the cast keeps these moments alive.  Shannon and Cavill, along with Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, the Daily Planet editor, and Amy Adams, actually show risk and fear amid all of this bombastic action.  Still, Snyder is insistent on his freedom to go crazy with CGI effects.  It’s more than a bit much, but the characters up to this point keep me engaged with the film all the way through.  Later DC films in this franchise don’t do it so much for me, but that’s another column altogether.  

Again, what I especially like about Man Of Steel is how Snyder cuts back and forth with the film.  Heroic moments occur and then are reflected back to times in Clark’s childhood with Jonathan and Martha.  With Zimmer’s score, it seems to allow Clark to consider conversations and moments from his past as meaningful to what he is experiencing in the present.  When Zack Snyder stays on this trajectory it makes Man Of Steel more than just another comic book movie for summer box office.  There’s depth from Goyer’s script that Snyder wisely does not disregard.  

Man Of Steel is a new and unfamiliar kind of Superman, but its a very welcome Superman too.