Saturday, March 26, 2016

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice

We live in a binary world. At least we do in the current times. People play games like "Would you Rather?" or they swipe left or right. With the rise of social media, the desire for instant gratification has encouraged the most extremes of views to be the ones we pay the most attention to. The whole idea of social comparison has been reduced to "It's Awesome" or "It Sucks." Well my friends, on this blog we don't play by simple binary rules. Even though the title of today's subject seems to suggest we come down on one side for one hero or the other, the world is more complicated than that, and so is this movie. If all you are looking for is an instant up or down, prepare to be disappointed. "Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice", is not the holy grail that comic book fans would hope for, but it is also not the POS that so many haters on the internet are willing to tag it as. As a story it is something of a mess, as a movie it is a puzzlement, but as a spectacle it is pretty impressive and there are some other small things to recommend it.

Here is another example of the twofold choice that is foisted upon us by our social peers: D.C. or Marvel? The success of the Marvel Universe in the movie theaters over the last few years is a credit to patience and planning as well as good writing. Starting with "Ironman" the comic worlds of the Marvel stories have been brought to life and linked very effectively. Even though there are glaring failures with Marvel Product, that can usually be attributed to rights issues which have resulted in three different studios trying to manage the comic universe. Disney now owns the most successful of these and with "The Avengers" has merged them together into the kinds of elaborate story lines that readers of the comics have enjoyed. Cross pollination has produced some fun moments and at least two great films, "The Avengers" and "Captain America: The Winter Soldier".  Certainly, the D.C. comics, with the most iconic Super heroes of all times could do the same. The Christopher Nolan Batman films are pretty much a separate property that Warner Brothers would like to merge into a cohesive Universe with Superman. 2013's "Man of Steel" was an attempt to restart that franchise with an eye to building a comparable comic universe to the Marvel films.

One of my major complaints about the new version of Superman is that the story and the character are so serious as to lack any joy at all. Henry Cavill has a sly smile that could be used effectively if the screenwriters and the director choose to do so, if any of you saw last year's "Man From U.N.C.L.E." you know what I am talking about. There is really only one moment when Clark Kent/Superman seems like he might be enjoying his time her on Earth, of course if you came home to Amy Adams sitting in the bathtub, you would smile too. That's about it though. There should be more by play between the main characters and there is not much. The only other time a smile might cross your face when this film is running is when Wonder Woman shows up and the two guys simply look at each other and "wonder" where she came from. Superman gets duped a couple of times in the film and that feels like a problem also. Cavill's best scenes are with his co-stars from the original film he appeared in, otherwise he seems to be brooding and angry most of the time.

Now you expect Bruce Wayne/Batman to brood, after all he is "The Dark Night". One of the things that should surprise the pessimists about this film is the performance and portrays of Batman by Ben Affleck. A redeeming feature of this film is that it accurately suggests that there is an aftermath to the wanton destruction that took place in the earlier film. This story connects Bruce Wayne to those events as an eyewitness and a victim. Batman's frustration with taking down criminals is exactly right, they are like weeds, as soon as you pull up one, another rises to take it's place. This Bruce Wayne is suspicious of Superman and willing to try to take a stand, even though Alfred and the rest of us can see that it is a little bit driven by tunnel vision. Affleck does a good job playing a conflicted and grim Bruce Wayne as he tries to figure out what plots are afoot and what role Superman plays in them. There is a scene at a fancy reception given by Lex Luthor, that allows Afflect to play detective and try to flirt a little. Just like Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne is given an insufficient amount of time with his personal life to feel much of a stake. Jeremy Irons is a great choice to play Alfred, but he is very under-utilized in the movie and that is a pity.

Neither character gets much of a chance to make an impact on us emotionally because so many things are happening in the story it is hard to keep track. Kryptonite is being discovered, as is Wonder Woman, and Lex Luthor is plotting three different things at once, some of which feel unnecessary in the long run. There is an investigation into Superman's intervention in a terrorist camp and a disgruntled victim of the war with Zod is part of the intrigue. In the course of two and a half hours, there are a half dozen story lines and they are interspersed with flashbacks and dream sequences so often that it is sometimes difficult to tell how it all fits together and what actions really are supposed to be taking place. It does not help that Jesse Eisenberg has been directed to play Lex Luthor as a victim of ADHD with a touch of paranoia. Comic book fans who complain about the villain monologuing the hero, should appreciate the frequency with which Eisenberg simply can't complete an idea out loud, or in one very obvious case, coherently. This film is really a straight drama with very little in the way of heroics. The drama is complicated and the characters are shown in such murky circumstances that it is hard to fathom motive even when the actions are explained. One person in our group put it in a straight forward way, "Why can't Superman and Batman see that they are being manipulated and simply kick Luthor's ass?" That's a good question and it is not an easy one to answer.

So, at this point we have that the tone is grim, the plot is convoluted, the characters lack much character, and it is long. So whats there to recommend? Well, the look of the film is impressive in scope and original in conception. Batman's toys are integrated into the story well and as I've already said, Afflect does a fine job with an older, discouraged and angry Batman character. There are two sequences with Superman's family that are pretty solid, and Amy Adams is naked in the bathtub. So that's an inventory of what's good about this film, is there anything great in it?  The best element of the film is Wonder Woman, who is kept mysterious for the most part and arrives on the scene in a moment spoiled by the trailers for the movie but still able to give us a thrill. Gal Gadot was in four of the "Fast and Furious" movies and I don't remember her at all [OK, I've only seen three of them myself, but she was in all three of those],  here you will definitely remember her. She is shooting a stand alone "Wonder Woman" movie and her presence in this film, makes me want to see that. I  also like the seeds that have been planted for future films featuring characters from the Justice league. The problem that I foresee is that the tone of each of those stories will be as down as these first two films have been.

We need a little less sturm and drang, and a lot more character. The central characters don't have to be cartoons but they could be more human by having some emotion other than being pissed off. Two charismatic actors are being played with by director Zack Snyder. He has them as his action figures to move through an afternoon of a child's version of a story, "fight-explosion-fight-chase-fight." The screenwriters need to take a lesson from the films from the past that used these characters. We should like them because they have strength but also personality. A shot like Michael Keaton in gravity boots or Christopher Reeve discovering that phone booths have become phone kiosks, would go a long way in creating some goodwill for these projects. Spectacle is enough for now, but if you want people to stay engaged for a dozen more films from this universe, you better give us more to care about.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Ten Commandments TCM Fathom Event

It was just two years ago that I went to a screening of "The Ten Commandments" at this same theater. That showing was not a Fathom event but rather part of a series AMC Theaters did that year running a whole variety of older movies. It was not particularly well attended in part I'm sure because of a lack of promotion. Today, I returned to the Red Sea with Charlton Heston and because the screening was a Fathom Event in conjunction with TCM, the theater was quite full. It was not a sell out but it was impressive for a Sunday afternoon screening of a sixty year old film.

Once again the film was spectacular, and although the special effects are six decades behind today's digital technology, it still feels more than impressive. TCM Host Ben Mankiewicz pointed out that much of the exterior work was shot in Egypt and that there were enormous sets to complement the camera trickery that makes the city of Goshen appear so impressive and of course the parting of the Red Sea so notable. The photographic effect of the final plague on Egypt looked like God's green fingers were coming from the sky and that the fog which clung to the ground was his breath, turning Ramses edict on itself and slaying the first born of Egypt while passing over the Israelites who marked their thresholds with lambs blood.

The style of the dialogue sometimes provoked a bit of laughter from the audience. Let's face it, half of the time anyone says the name of Moses, they repeat it a second time in the script. The things that are most believable in the filming are the impressive use of the extras, especially in the Exodus scene itself. The geese, and goats and camels and cattle all interact in a very realistic way with the impressive cast of thousands.  Still none of it would matter if Mr. Heston and Mr. Bryner were not convincing in their parts. While much more theatrical in nature than most of us are used to in acting today, both the leads are effective with their faces, body movements and voices. Both of them make large public pronouncements that would sound silly coming from today's leaders but are sincere in the context of this film.

So many character actors are in the film that it is a wonder that they could keep them for as long as it took to shoot the film. I've heard it said that Edward G. Robinson was miscast in the movie but his slight NY accent did not seem to be a distraction to me. Vincent Price was suitably slimy and  hearing John Carradine's sonorous voice backing up Heston was a delight. The only performer who seemed slightly awkward at times was Anne Baxter, but her scenes near the end of the movie were far more effective than the love scenes in the first hour.

It's Easter season so this film is a perennial and it made sense for TCM to schedule it during the Holy Week. If you are looking for some easy way to commemorate the Holiday, the nearly four hour investment in this movie is probably worth your time. It is also playing again this Wednesday, so play hooky and go, you will be glad you did.  

The Bronze

Here is a movie that tries too hard to be quirky and hip and only succeeds in being mildly annoying most of the time. The idea of lampooning Olympic athletes is not really new, neither is the vulgar language in the mouth of an otherwise seemingly innocent young woman. So the film turns up the shock value of the language and tries like hell to overwhelm you with how awful a person the lead character has become. The fact that some of the things being said could have been quotes from Billy Bob Thornton in "Bad Santa" doesn't qualify it as comic genius.

The movie plays for the first half like a bad sketch on Saturday Night Live. You know, the one that had a funny premise for about a minute but actually ran seven to ten minutes. That's this movie for the first hour. There finally appears to be a more traditional plot line in the last half that concerns love and redemption but it does not feel earned since we got so abused in the first part of the movie. Mean spirited insults and dry delivery might work in small doses if timed correctly, here they just swallow the movie up and puke it all over us.

Melissa Rauch from "The Big Bang Theory" plays the part as it was written and directed, so the outcome is not entirely her fault, except that she wrote the picture with her husband. There is a gem of an idea here but it takes more skilled hands to make it work than were brought to bear. There is not a project that I can think of that Gary Cole has not made better by his presence and this film is now included in that assessment. As the father of the lead character, he is both funny, ineffectual and too sadly real. 

There are several laughs in the film but they are not as frequent as they should be and most of them depend on the vile things that are being done and said. If you are looking for a way to spend a really uncomfortable couple of hours, take your parents with you to see this. If you can get through the opening scene without them walking out, maybe the movie is for you. I sound like I hated it but that is far from the truth, I was just disappointed that it could not live up to it's potential. There is however one scene that stands out and might make a trek to a theater to see this worthwhile. Two gymnasts get it on in a over the top sex scene and it involves all of the moves, bending, head and ass placement you may have been fantasizing about since you first had a crush on that guy or gal on your high school gymnastics team.  It is really dirty and really funny. Supposedly, Sebastian Stan did his own stunts for the movie, if that includes this scene, he will be a big heartthrob for the rest of his career.

This is a little movie with big aspirations of being a surprise comedy, but the surprise is how boring so much of the film is. I'm not a big rap fan myself, but I think the end credit rap performance by the star, had everything the movie offered, but in five minutes or less.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

10 Cloverfield Lane

Here is a movie trailer that manages to sell the story without giving away the farm. The juxtaposition of moods is perfectly emblematic of what happens in the film, and the less you know, the more enjoyable the movie will be. I see reviews all the time when I read on-line where more than half the review simply retells the plot of the film. Sometimes that is necessary, because otherwise people won't understand why the movie is worth seeing or why it should be avoided. I have always attempted to keep that type of material to an absolute minimum on my posts because I don't want to spoil a movie for someone else, and frankly, repeating the story just bugs me, go see the movie if you need to know. This film is going to be a little challenging to write about because I don't want to give away anything at all.

If you too are worried about spoilers, don't read the next paragraph. It does not go into the plot but it does discuss something that most people seeing the film will have some knowledge of.

"10 Cloverfield Lane" is in fact a sequel of sorts to the found footage movie from 2008. That is eight long years ago, so a sequel might seem strange, but it is a different kind of a sequel, it is more a related story rather than a descendant. No characters reoccur in this piece but you will be able to see a direct relationship after the film has played out. There, that's as much as I will say about it.

End of semi-spoiler material.

This movie has several great scenes in it that will startle you and build some fantastic tension. More than ninety percent of what takes place is in a "locked room" scenario and there are basically no effects, visual trickery or CGI manipulation. This is a strange drama played out against a backdrop that remains ambiguous till the end of the film. There are basically three characters and how they interact, what they do and their relationship to each other is all what the movie is about. The reason this movie works so well is not really the premise, but the screenplay. The principle screenwriters are Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken and Damien Chazelle. That last name should have rung a bell for me, because he is the writer/director of my favorite film from two years ago, "Whiplash".  I'm sure that the first two deserve all kinds of credit for creating the situation and plot, but I'd be willing to bet that the tension laden scenes in the film were scripted by Chazelle, the building stress and the mental strain exhibited by the characters is so close to what was in that movie about a young ambitious drummer that I feel I should have been able to guess it. 

Unlike the original "Cloverfield", this is not a found footage film, and it is not shot using a 'Go Pro' strapped to someones head. The director here had access to a tripod and used it. That does not mean that the film is static, but it does mean that it is not full of visual flourishes designed to wow bored audiences. Director Dan Trackenberg is trying to tell a story, and not build a portfolio for himself to submit when someone needs a big budget picture made. Maybe he will be able to pull that sort of film off, but if he ever gets the chance it will not be because he was a camera wizard here. It will be due to the fact that he knows how to pace a scene and show the actors and stage a moment. And as i said earlier, there are some really good moments here. 

The cast has to get a huge amount of credit for the success of the film. John Goodman is an actor who works all of the time in so many different roles, that although he is easy to recognize, he is hard to classify. I found an appreciation of his efforts on another site that I read regularly and you might like to go there and see how versatile he really is (AndSoitBegins) . The truth is, he is well respected and has a long list of award nominated performances, mostly on TV. His film career is extensive and it really is a shame that he was not nominated for an Academy Award for supporting actor for "the Big Lebowski". This movie is in a genre that is not likely to change that but it should. He is terrific as Howard, either a savior or a lunatic, who drives the tautness of the film up the wall at times. Howard is more mundane than we might expect, but he has elements to his character that will give you the willies. Walking through the parking lot after the film, we stopped in the "Golden Spoon" yo get some frozen yogurt to take home. My daughter asked me if I wanted it in a bowl or a cone, mimicking a scene in the movie, and I actually shivered for a moment because Goodman makes that scene so real and foreboding. Like Goodman,  Mary Elizabeth Winstead is an actress known for both television and films. I noticed that she costarred with Kurt Russel in two films and did the remake/prequel to the Kurt Russel classic "The Thing", so maybe she has a thing for the grizzled old guys. This film really belongs to her. The emotional journey that takes place during the movie is all about her character. She grows and evolves as a person due to the experiences she goes through. There are some action scenes but more than anything it is the way she relates to her two co-stars that makes her performance memorable. The third actor in the piece is John Gallagher Jr., an actor that I don't know well but for whom this film could be a launching point for bigger things. He has two very effective moments in the movie and matches with Goodman and Winstead, minute by minute. 

That's as much as I'm going to say about the film. If you have seen it, I'd love to engage in some conversation with you about it. Just don't give anything away because then I will have to wish you into the cornfield, and that won't go well. 

Sunday, March 6, 2016

London Has Fallen

You did not think that after a surprise financial success with "Olympus Has Fallen", there would not be a sequel did you? Come on, there is money on the table and someone has to take it home, It might as well be Gerard Butler. I am a big fan of the original film, where Butler does his best Bruce Willis impression and the effects teams add enough firepower to take down a whole city. The premise was over the top but in complete congruence with the action films of the 80s and 90s. It was basically "Die Hard" in the White House. Just like the sequel to the original Die Hard, "London Has Fallen" keeps the characters from the original, transports them to another location, and changes directors. Babak Najafi is no Renny Harlin, but he manages to deliver the goods in sufficient quantities that there could easily be  a "Moscow Has Fallen" entry in a couple of years.

I do feel a bit guilty about all the mayhem shown in the film. There are explosions and public edifices wiped out along with what must have been thousands of civilians.  Somehow, it is not quite as disconcerting as it is to me in some other films, maybe it is the cheese factor that you start with. No one worries that much when it happens in a "Transformers" movie because the film never takes itself seriously. "Man of Steel" took itself extremely seriously, and maybe that is the difference to me. At the end of this film, all of London is being rebuilt and there will be little to remind anyone of what happened. The fact that Morgan Freeman provides the denouement instead of Aaron Eckhart's President Asher, only underscores the fact that his sonorous voice is being used to put the button on the story.

Most of the terror attacks happen early in the movie, so the expensive effects shots are used to set us up for the cat and mouse game that makes up the majority of the film. Secret Service Agent Mike Banning(Butler) has the President with him as the terrorists chase them across the abandoned streets of London. The terrorists conveniently shut off the lights so no one will see that the street sets are not real locations and as many shootouts in the dark can be accentuated with firebursts from the tip of a machine gun. The preposterous set up involves half of the London police being replaced by an army of terrorists that no one will notice. When members of the palace guard take their weapons and gun down the German Chancellor, you know there is no logic to the film at all.

The fact that the story is nonsense does not distract from the pleasure we get from watching Agent banning kick tail and take names. When he gets to use those names in his interplay with the main terrorist on the scene, it is exactly like a moment form "Die Hard". One thing that is a little different however is that Mike Banning is not going to let any terrorist get up five minutes later and take a dying shot. He seems to be a strong believer in the "double Tap" and when it comes to taking a man down with a knife, clearly a single insertion is not enough. When the President asks if the one killing of a terrorist with a knife in a particularly brutal way was necessary, Mike simply smiles and says, "No".

There is no reason to take any of this as more than a program, popcorn afternoon filler. Jackie Earle Hailey, Melissa Leo, Robert Forester, and Angela Basset, all Academy Award nominated actors are collecting a paycheck. Only Basset has to leave a room for her performance, everyone else sits around a table to deliver their lines. Morgan Freeman, an Academy Award winner, does stand up a couple of times to make his presence worth third billing,  but ultimately this is Butler's show with Eckhart in support. Cracking wise and killing a buttload of bad guys is what this film is all about. It does it efficiently and in an entertaining way, so if you want to eat your Milk Duds in the dark, this is a movie that will facilitate that. Of course all of it's calories are empty as well.

Saturday, March 5, 2016


Some films ambitions just are out of reach of their grasp. This animated offering from Disney Studios has a lot going for it, including an excellent cast, an interesting setting and some of the cutest characters you can imagine. It also has pretensions of seriousness that it just doesn't reach at times. The movie is by no stretch of the imagination a failure, but it is so obvious to see the themes and goals of the film makers and it is equally obvious that they strike out a few times. However, for every time there is something just a bit big for the movie, there are moments that make it all worth a trip, even if it is not destined to become a modern classic.

The movie starts as a light hearted story of a can do character in a world where animals all seemingly get along, but under the surface, they face the kinds of barriers that we humans do, small minded prejudice. Allegory 101, Zootopia is "Animal Farm" with jokes. The heavy handed examples of prejudice and stereotyping are likely to go over the heads of the kids watching the movie, but hit their parents and other adults watching right in the forehead. Subtlety goes out the window at times and halfway through the movie, the story gets dark and heavy. Kids will probably lose patience with it and the adults will wonder where the fun went. Just when you despair however, there is a moment that pulls us back into the spirit of things and makes us root for the film still.

Since I am generally a positive person with movies, I'll give you a few things to look at and like about the movie. It is beautifully made with a nice design for different ecosystems in the city and cleverly visualized jokes. There is a fun chase sequence through a rodent style section of the city where our main hero, Officer Judy Hopps, a bunny, chases a perp through miniature buildings and a tiny subway and some habitrals that are complex and fun to imagine as a city for hamsters, mice and other such critters. You have probably seen the joke about the DMV in the trailer and it works even though we got it months ago in the preview. For a movie that is trying to move us away from our prejudices, it makes a lot of use of what would be "ethnic" humor if the characters were human. There are elephant jokes and wolf jokes that all hit the mark when it comes to making us laugh, but if you replaced those characters with an ethnic stereotype, the special interest groups would be howling.

This is a buddy cop film with animals. Think "48 Hours", only the Nick Nolte character is a naive rookie instead of a veteran burnout. Reggie Hammond is named Nick and he's a fox. Together the two are going to solve a mystery. The good thing is these characters are terrific. Judy, the rookie bunny police officer, is a cute as can be. Ginnifer Goodwin voices the character as determined but vulnerable and the artists who visualized the character make her exactly that, with huge expressive eyes and long ears with big rabbit feet. Her "partner" jokes at one point that the the toy store has reported one of their stuffed dolls animals is missing. She may not be a Princess, but the character is marketable as all heck. I expect to see her front and center in the toy aisle at Target. Nick is voiced by Jason Bateman who seems to be the sardonic voice for parts not already taken by Bill Murray. He is a little disheveled, and slick, which is precisely the way he needs to be played. The un-tucked shirt, the sunglasses and the attitude are not Eddie Murphy stylish, but more John Candy clever. When we are focused on these two characters, the movie works. When we get to the procedural and the conspiracy plot, it just falls down a little.

Maybe this film will work better for a different audience. Some of the contemporary visuals like the apps used by some of Judy's fellow cops or the diva like concert performance with dancing tigers just seem too much of the now. It may not hold up over the years and the humor needs to be a little more universal. Fortunately, every time you get a joke based on a contemporary reference (including a "Frozen" line) there is another animal pun about wolves in sheep's clothing or the elephant in the room to make it more sustainable. I wanted it to be more effective, and while I can't always say why it was not, I can say that half of a good movie is better than a bad movie, any day of the week.